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EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL 



Thesis/Project 



INTERPRETING PERPETUA AND HER DREAMS 



BY 



JERROLD I.W. MITCHELL 



B.A. Yale University, 1961, J.D. Harvard Law School, 1964, M.T.S. Harvard 

Divinity School, 1997 



Submittted in partial fulfillment of the 

requirements for the degree of 

DOCTOR OF MINISTRY 

2001 



© Copyright by 

JERROLD MITCHELL 

2001 



Approved By 



Supervisor. 



pyAJ^ u/*-nju3Vv-_- 



The Rev. Dr. Andrew McGowan, Ph. D. 
Associate Professor of Early Christian History 



Reader HjA^^ ex 





Dr. Lawrence M. Wills, Th. D. 
Professor of Biblical Studies 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 



All my teachers at Episcopal Divinity School have been generous with 
their time and supportive of my project, and none more so than my advisor, 
Andrew McGowan. A true scholar and a gentle critic, he has guided me toward 
a better understanding of the Passio and a better appreciation of early Christian 
history. I must also acknowledge the patience of my family-Ann, Alison and 
David. 



IV 



TABLE OF CONTENTS 



CHAPTER ONE 

PERPETUA AND HER DREAMS 



CHAPTER TWO 

PERPETUA'S DREAMS IN CONTEXT: 

DREAM INTERPRETATION IN THE ANCIENT WORLD 21 



CHAPTER THREE 

MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF PERPETUA 

AND HER DREAMS 43 



CHAPTER FOUR 

AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION: PERPETUA'S DREAMS 

AS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW WOMEN HAVE USED DREAMS 

TO PROMOTE THEIR RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION 92 



CHAPTER FIVE 

LESSONS FOR MINISTRY 108 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 123 



CHAPTER ONE 
PERPETUA: THE WOMAN AND THE TEXT 

Introduction 

Scholars have long been captivated by the story of Vibia Perpetua, an 

educated Roman citizen, young mother and Christian catechumen who was 

martyred in Carthage under the procurator Hilarianus in 203. 1 Mary R. 

Lefkowitz offers a brief recapitulation of the Perpetua narrative "In case," as she 

humorously notes, "there is someone... who does not know [it] by heart": 

A narrator tells us about a group of Christians who were executed in 
Carthage in 203, including Vibia Perpetua, "a newly married woman of 
good family and upbringing... about twenty-two years old... with an infant 
son at the breast"; with her is her brother, also a Christian convert. The 
narrator then quotes directly from Perpetua's own memoirs, which consist 
of her account of her imprisonment and of the dreams she had in prison; 
she tells how her father, who has remained a pagan, pleads with her to 
abandon her religion and tries to get the authorities to let her out; 
detailed, explicit visions tell her meanwhile that she must die. The 
narrator then tells the story of her fellow martyrs and their joint execution; 
they were exposed to wild beasts in the arena; Perpetua herself was 
attacked but not seriously wounded by a wild cow, and finally killed by a 
gladiator, whose sword she willingly guided to her neck. 2 

Foremost among the scholarly interests in Perpetua has been a sequence of 



1 For a discussion of Perpetua's citizenship, probable social status and education, see Joyce E. 
Salisbury, Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman (New York and 
London: Routledge, 1997), 5-8; for a discussion of the date of her martyrdom, see Cecil M. 
Robeck, Jr., Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian and Cyprian (Cleveland: The Pilgrim 
Press, 1992), 13. 

2 Mary R. Lefkowitz, "The Motivations for St. Perpetua's Martyrdom," Journal of the American 
Academy of Religion 44 (September 1976): 417. 

1 



four dreams which Perpetua recorded during the imprisonment which preceded 
her execution. In writing about Perpetua's dreams, one soon confronts the fact 
that there is some dispute about the exact definition of the word "dream" and 
about exactly what it encompasses. In Perpetua's report of her dreams as well 
as in other ancient and modern dream descriptions, it is often difficult to 
determine from a text whether the experience described occurred while the 
subject was asleep or awake, conscious or unconscious, or in some 
intermediate state. If a dreamer or interpreter is silent on when or under what 
circumstances a dream occurred, it seems preferable to accept the most 
inclusive definition rather than risk losing important dream examples. Thus, for 
purposes of inclusivity, it seems wise to opt for the rather broad boundaries 
established by Benjamin Kilbourne who concludes that dreams "can designate 
not only dream states and the waking reports of these states but a variety of 
other experiences that might be called 'visions, ' 'waking dreams,' 'hypnogogic 
fantasies,' or 'hallucinations.'" 3 

The interpretation of Perpetua's dreams has provided fertile ground for 
exploration by theologians, classicists, feminist and postmodernist critics and 
psychologists of varying schools, each choosing a different perspective from 
which to approach the text. Perpetua's dreams have even been incorporated 
into fictionalized accounts of her life, ranging from the libretto of a mid- 
eighteenth century Italian opera to a nineteenth century English dramatic poem 
to a twenty-first century Australian novel. I have attempted to collect as many of 
these interpretations as I could find, adding to them where appropriate critical 
comments and suggestions for future interpretive exploration. While no claim is 



3 Benjamin Kilbourne, "Dreams," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 4, ed. Mircea Eliade (New 
York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), 482. 

2 



made for comprehensiveness, this is perhaps the first time that so many 
interpretations of so many differing stripes have been gathered together as the 
focus of one study. 

Why has Perpetua's dream account attracted such interest? Possible 
reasons include its antiquity, its length, its detail, its directness, its assumed 
female authorship and the probability that it is a writing by, as well as about, a 
martyr. There is also much merit in Kate Cooper's assertion that it is because 
"The image of the death of a young woman bears within it such evocative power 
that it is peculiarly vulnerable not only to contesting voices who wish to annex 
its power, but also to a kind of rhetorical outward spiral, gathering significance 
as it attracts to itself concerns beyond its point of origin." 4 Stated another way, 
interpreters of Perpetua's dreams, from the third century to the present, have 
sought to empower themselves and their special interests by incorporating-and 
sometimes forcing-their particular notions and speculations into the substance 
of Perpetua's oneiric imagination. In doing so they have contributed to the 
construction of an ever-growing superstructure far more complex, elaborate and 
maze-like than the original account of the dreams. There is nothing unusual or 
uncommon about this. Paul Ricoeur has observed that with any written 
discourse, "the author's intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide" 
and that "It is part of the meaning of a text to be given to an indefinite number of 
readers and, therefore, of interpretations." 5 Perpetua's dream text may also be 
seen as a "classic" in the sense of David Tracy's definition; that it discloses 



4 Kate Cooper, "The Voice of the Victim: Gender, Representation and Early Christian Martyrdom," 
Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 80 (Autumn 1 998) : 1 47. 

5 Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Ft. Worth: Texas 
Christian University Press, 1976), 29; 31-2. 

3 



»7 



"permanent possibilities of meaning and truth." 6 Interpreters are drawn to 
Perpetua both because she herself was a visionary and because her text 
contains attributes which challenge and provoke us, overflowing with what 
Tracy calls an "excess of meaning" which "demands constant interpretation. 
But are all interpretations, all possibilities of meaning equally valid? 
Tracy additionally calls for explicit "criteria of appropriateness" by which 
interpreters may be judged critically without forfeiting either broad public 
discourse or a pluralism of ideas. 8 In this thesis, I will refer to these criteria and 
note that the sometimes dogmatic stances which many interpreters adopt may 
tell us more about their own thinking, belief systems and biases than they do 
about Perpetua's dreams, and that one always should be on guard against 
what S. R. F. Price calls the "problem of the imposition of modern theory on 
other societies." 9 I will employ Price's dictum as a criterion of appropriateness 
even while allowing, as Tracy does, that every interpreter "comes to any reading 
of the text as a subject with a certain preunderstanding of the subject matter of 
the text; certain personal questions, opinions, responses, expectations, even 
desires, fears and hopes are present in that preunderstanding." 10 Interpreters 
must consider historical authenticity regardless of their preunderstandings. If 
they do so, we can accept the proposition that the text may have multiple 
"correct" meanings, with each interpretive community asking its own questions 
of Perpetua's dreams across the boundaries of time and discipline, and then 



6 David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New 
York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 68. 

7 Ibid., 102. 

8 Ibid., 59. 

9 S.R.F. Price, "The Future of Dreams: From Freud to Artemidorus," Past & Present 113 
(November 1986): 36. 

10 Tracy, 118. 

4 



providing answers which meet its needs and objectives. While multiple 
readings may appear initially to create doubt and confusion and suggest that 
there is no single satisfactory interpretation, one may also argue that it is in the 
very plurality of opinion that the truth lies. That is, we may find that it is through 
intelligent discourse and constant reconstruction and reinterpretation that the 
text lives, gains its vitality and continues to inspire us. And we, in turn, may be 
so stimulated by the varied interpretations that we find new meanings in the text 
ourselves and devise our own hermeneutic. 

Questions of multiple interpretations and criteria of appropriateness 
occur not only in circumstances involving the study of ancient texts, but also in 
settings that one might at first consider far removed, such as in the worlds of 
fiduciary investment management and of institutional boards of trustees. My 
ministry as a trustee and my practice as a fund manager have taught me that the 
same preunderstandings which Tracy addresses in a theological context exist 
as well in an administrative context. That is, individual trustees do not confront 
institutional problems and opportunities in a vacuum; each trustee brings to his 
or her decision making the same personal biases and "desires, fears, and 
hopes" which Tracy finds in the interpreters of the classics. Thus, a study of the 
interpretations of Perpetua and her dreams can inform my ministry as a trustee 
and in turn benefit the institutions which I serve. 

This thesis is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, we will 
examine the challenges of the Perpetua text itself; in Chapter Two we will 
consider the importance of dreams and dream theories in the ancient world; 
Chapter Three explores the modern interpretations of Perpetua's dreams; 
Chapter Four presents my own alternative interpretation, focusing on the use of 

5 



women's dreams as a means of empowerment. In Chapter Five I will explore 
how the lessons learned from the study of Perpetua's dreams have impacted 
my ministry as a trustee and fund manager. I will propose that there is an 
analogy between Perpetua the visionary, aware of responsibilities to her 
religious community, and the trustee as visionary, aware of responsibilities to 
his or her institution. 

The Text 
"The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas" 11 is a narrative that has 
been described as "part panegyric, part (auto)biography, part exemplum, part 
recollection of visionary experience." 12 This multiform genre is not unusual in 
martyr narratives. Donald Attwater has written that "of the numerous written 
accounts of the early martyrs... [m]any are wholly fictitious; others are a 
combination of history and legend, and the respective elements cannot always 
be disentangled easily, or at all." 13 The work was probably composed in Latin, 
although there is a minority view which sees stylistic evidence for a Greek 
original. This could indicate that Perpetua was literate in both languages. The 
text can be divided into four sections: (i) an introduction by an anonymous 
editor, (ii) Perpetua's story and dreams "according to her own ideas and in the 
way that she herself wrote it down" (Pass. 2. 3), (iii) a vision of Saturus (another 
prisoner) and (iv) an editor's concluding description of what occurred after 
Perpetua's death. 



11 Herbert Musurillo, trans., "The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas" in The Acts of the 
Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 106-131. All references to the "Martyrdom" 
hereafter are to Musurillo's English translation of the Latin Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et 
Felicitatis and unless otherwise noted are cited in the text as "Pass.". 

12 Elizabeth Castelli, Visions and Voyeurism: Holy Women and the Politics of Sight in Early 
Christianity (Berkeley , CA: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1994), 10. 

13 Donald Attwater, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (London : Penguin Books, 1983), 11. 

6 



Since we will be dealing principally with the second section, it may be 
useful at this point to present a spare outline of the dreams themselves. 
Perpetua's first dream involves her avoiding a dragon, climbing a ladder, 
seeing a white haired shepherd in an immense garden and tasting some 
cheese which the shepherd offers her. Her second vision recalls her dead 
brother Dinocrates, who is living in a dark place, thirsty but unable to drink from 
a nearby pool of water. A third dream, also about Dinocrates, now has him able 
to drink, cured by prayer of "a cancer of the face" (Pass. 7. 25) and playing 
happily like a child. The fourth vision finds Perpetua in an arena, about to fight 
an Egyptian; she is undressed, assumes the likeness of a man, defeats her 
opponent and goes up to "a man of marvelous stature" who kisses her and says 
"Peace be with you, my daughter!" (Pass. 10.13). 

Most recent scholarship accepts the authenticity of Perpetua's authorship 
of the dream sections, although as Peter Nolan is quick to observe, "the heat of 
that conviction belies the fact that the evidence, though strong, is nonetheless 
circumstantial." 14 Much of the support for Perpetua as the actual author rests 
on the uniqueness of the work; for as Nolan expresses it, "if one cannot find 
either previous uses of the images and themes in the tradition, what [would] the 
counterfeiter [be] drawing on?" 15 Others, such as Peter Habermehl, cite the 
particularity of Perpetua's experiences, the intimacy and immediacy of her 
language, the text's unusual historic specificity and the peculiarities of 
Perpetua's Latin as indicative of her composition. 16 A skeptic, however, might 

argue that a creative pseudepigrapher of the same place and time could have 

14 Edward Peter Nolan, Cry Out and Write: A Feminine Poetics of Revelation (New York: The 
Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 34. 

15 Ibid. 

19 Ibid., 34-35. Nolan discusses at some length Habermehl's evidence for Perpetua's authorship. 



- 



been just as original in both voice and style. Since an editor wrote parts of the 
work, logic dictates that we at least question whether an editor had a hand in 
the entire work. If so, who was the editor and what might have been his or her 
motives? Most scholars avoid the question, referring only to an anonymous 
(presumably male) redactor; some, including Johannes Quasten and Berthold 
Altaner, 17 favor Tertullian, and one, David M. Scholer, opines that the editor was 
"very possibly a woman," but neither ventures a name nor explains why he 
holds this opinion. 18 From another perspective, Cooper writes that, as is often 
the case in martyr stories, "The voice of the author and the voice of the martyr 
are often difficult to distinguish from one another" and claims that this is usually 
the author's intention. 19 As long as there is some confusion between the two, 
the author shares the martyr's "supremely authoritative voice" and benefits from 
the martyr's heightened position. 20 Such intentional imitation of the author's 
voice by the redactor makes it even harder to separate one from the other. 
Further, the repeated notation by the editor that "the entire account of her ordeal 
is her own" (Pass. 2. 3) suggests a certain lack of conviction on that very point, 
a fear that perhaps even in the third century there were already doubters that 
Perpetua was the real author. One is reminded of Joanna Dewey's contention, 
albeit in another context, that "prescriptive statements are evidence that the 
opposite behavior is occurring." 21 The more the editor insists on Perpetua's 
authorship, the more cause the suspicious reader has to question it. Such 

17 Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1950), 181. Berthold 
Altaner, Patrology, trans. Hilda Graef (New York: Hader and Hader, 1960), 249. 

18 David M. Scholer, "'And I Was A Man': The Power and Problem of Perpetua," Daughters of 
Sarah (Sept/Oct 1989): 11. 

19 Cooper, 148. 

20 Ibid. 

21 Joanna Dewey, "From Oral Stories to Written Text" in Women's Sacred Scripture, Concilium 
1998/3, ed. Kwok Pui-Lan and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza (London: SCM Press, 1998), 26. 

8 



insistence could be a broad hint that the editor is covering his or her tracks. 

Why is the question of authorship important? One could argue that the 
quest for definitive proof of authorship of any ancient text is both a futile and 
meaningless exercise. Unless one uncovers an attested holographic 
manuscript of a particular writing, there will always be doubters. And since it is 
the written and published text rather than the living individual writer that speaks 
to us today, need we even be concerned with knowing the identity of the "real 
author"? Would the Iliad or Hamlet be less compelling if Homer or 
Shakespeare were not the true authors? Perhaps not. For as Tracy observes, 
"It is the work, not the artist, which must receive the attention of the interpreter." 22 
But in the case of Perpetua's dreams, authorship is important because if the 
dreams were not truly Perpetua's, or if they were in large part redacted, much 
recent interpretation, particularly from the feminist and psychological points of 
view, must be suspect. For example, a dream account written by Tertullian, and 
only attributed to Perpetua, could hardly be given the same weight by a 
Freudian or feminist as an account actually written by Perpetua herself. The 
main points would be lost. Tertullian was a man, Perpetua a woman. Theories 
based on sexuality or female empowerment applicable to a woman author 
would be of dubious value if it were discovered that the author was a man. One 
would be analyzing a man's idea of a woman's dream rather than a woman's 
dream itself. Cecil Robeck is not one who favors a claim for Tertullian, yet he 
agrees that "more study is necessary" to settle the question of authorship. 23 W. 
H. Shewring is one of several scholars who have been willing to accept the 

possibility of Tertullian as narrator or redactor, but not as the author of the 

22 Tracy, 125. 

23 Robeck, 17. 

9 



dream sequences. In an analysis of the clausulae of the text, he finds that "The 
redactor's prose is the rhythmical prose of a practiced writer" while the dream 
prose has "metrically harsher endings" and rhythms that are "sufficiently 
different from the redactor's to make it reasonably certain that her narrative was 
never revised by him." 24 Timothy Barnes concurs, observing that "The style of 
the Passion has, it is true, affinities with Tertullian's writings. But the striking 
similarities occur almost entirely in the exordium and the epilogue." 25 

One must also bear in mind that the concept of authorship in antiquity 
was quite different from the concept of authorship today. While Shewring's 
syntactic dissection of the text must be given some weight, we know that ancient 
writings were often attributed to those whose name, rank, position or special 
experience would enhance the composition's authority. A dream of an honored 
martyr would carry more weight and meaning in the world of the early third 
century than one of an ordinary North African Christian, or even of a recognized 
religious leader, such as Tertullian. Additionally, several different contributors 
may ultimately have had a part in the writing of a document; events may have 
been reported in a manner which would reflect their views or those of later 
copyists or editors rather than the actuality of the person who originally 
experienced the dream. 

Even if we assume that Perpetua was indeed the sole author of the 
dream sequences, how accurate a reporter was she of her own dreams? This 
is worth considering because of the importance interpreters place on her every 
word, finding each one charged with symbolic, hidden, religious or political 



24 W. H. Shewring, "Prose Rhythm in the Passio S. Perpetuae," The Journal of Theological 
Studies 30 (October 1928): 56-7. 

25 Timothy D. Barnes, "Pre-Decian Acta Martyrum," The Journal of Theological Studies 19 N.S. 
part 2 (October 1968): 522. 

10 



meanings. Brent D. Shaw observes that Perpetua's dreams "are truly 
extraordinary in the quality of their reportage." 26 Perhaps this extraordinary 
quality should give us pause. Recording dreams-transferring visions and 
images into words and onto paper-is a sensitive and exacting business, 
whether it is done by a contemporary ethnologist, a turn of the century 
psychiatrist or a third century martyr. There is considerable room fcr 
unintentional or uninformed error. When one recalls how difficult it can be to 
record one's own dreams even under ideal circumstances, one can appreciate 
the difficulty Perpetua must have faced. She had to remember and transcribe 
her dreams in the hostile environment of a Carthage jail, awaiting death, 
surrounded by other prisoners, baited by her captors, all the while worrying 
about her son, her family and friends. While this could, perhaps, induce even 
greater focus on the exactitude of the oneiric record, it could also lead to a less 
than perfect transcription of the dream. And if the text of the dream is distorted, 
what can one say of the interpretations? One is reminded of the story of the 
literary scholars who, for decades, sought to interpret the obscure passages of 
James Joyce's Ulysses, only to find that many of the obscurities and ambiguities 
were created not by Joyce but by errors of the French typographers and 
printers. 

Little has been written about the physical medium of the Perpetua text or 
about its means of distribution. Yet, as Harry Y. Gamble notes, "The failure to 
consider the extent to which the physical medium of the written word contributes 
to its meaning-how its outward aspects inform the way a text is approached 
and read-perpetuates a largely abstract, often unhistorical, and even 



26 Brent D. Shaw, "The Passion of Perpetua," Past & Present 139 (May 1993): 26. 

11 



' 






anachronistic conception of early Christian literature and its transmission." 27 
Gamble's thesis is that a bibliographic inquiry into ancient writings, together 
with a discussion of the related issue of literacy, will enhance our 
comprehension of texts in general and assist us in placing them in their historic 
life situation. The medium on which a work was written and its subsequent 
manner of publication, distribution and readership are seen to be clues to "the 
social attitudes, motives, and contexts that sustained its life and shaped its 
meaning." 28 Such clues may be particularly helpful when one attempts to 
analyze Perpetua's dreams on the basis of a written record that has its footing in 
a specific locus and time. It is for this reason that an excursus into Gamble's 
argument is worthwhile. 

Since texts have been a part of Christianity from its earliest days, a naive 
student might well assume that there must be a host of studies dealing with the 
question of Christian literacy. Not so, claims Gamble, who contends that "The 
question has rarely been raised and has never been explored by historians of 
early Christianity." 29 He remedies this situation with a closely-reasoned 
argument, concluding that early Christian literacy was equal to, or perhaps 
slightly less than, literacy in the greater Greco-Roman society; that is, about 10- 
15 percent. He supports this premise by noting that "Christianity attracted a 
socially diverse membership, representing a cross section of Roman society" 
and therefore it is logical to believe that it had a similar literacy rate. If anything, 
Christian literacy might have been somewhat less because of "a tendency... to 
neglect education in the interest of fideism, otherworldliness, or acquiescent 



27 Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New 
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 42. 

28 Ibid., 43. 

29 Ibid., 2. 

12 



orthodoxy." 30 The acceptance of Gamble's proposition still leaves at least one 
unanswered question: Was the extent of literacy equal across the map of early 
Christianity, or did percentages differ from place to place, say from Carthage to 
Rome? This is a useful topic to pursue inasmuch as any given text is produced 
not in a vague, generalized Greco-Roman society but in a specific geography, 
in the case of Perpetua's story in Mediterranean North Africa. If Perpetua did 
write the dream text herself, whom did she write it for? Her fellow prisoners, her 
family, the local Christian community, a wider audience? How many of her 
intended readers were educated enough to understand and interpret the 
nuances of a dream account? How many of them would have preserved texts 
at home or had access to libraries to which a text might be brought? The 
expected readership may have influenced the form and method of the 
composition as well as the specific details included in the dream accounts. For 
example, one might well describe a dream experience one way if it were meant 
to be read as an inspirational document and treasured by beleaguered 
coreligionists and another way if it were meant to be a personal legacy to one's 
infant son. 

If most Christians could not read or write, they were still able to benefit 
from written texts. This is because the nature of reading and writing was 
dramatically different in ancient times from what we experience today. Reading 
in the early centuries of the common era almost always meant reading aloud, 
and often to an audience. Therefore, Gamble notes, "the illiterate had access to 
literacy in a variety of public settings"; Christians in particular were exposed to 
the oral presentation of written texts since "an essential element of Christian 

30 Ibid., 6. 

13 



liturgical gatherings was the reading of scripture." 31 Familiarity with texts, then, 
did not require the ability to read oneself. This does not indicate that early 
Christianity was based principally on oral tradition. In fact, Gamble appears to 
argue the opposite, that Christianity was very much a significant producer and 
user of written materials but that, through reading aloud, "texts were routinely 
converted into the oral mode." 32 The sharp distinction which we make in modern 
times between the written and spoken word was blurred in antiquity. An 
illiterate Christian could be quite well-acquainted with a host of texts which he 
heard at readings in a church, public, or private setting. Even those who were 
literate probably had texts read to them or read those texts aloud themselves. 
As an example, Gamble quotes Papias and Galen to the effect that a "living 
voice" is preferable to the written word. It is fair to assume that both bishop and 
physician meant that having texts read aloud was superior to reading them 
silently and not that the written text itself was in any way inferior. Understanding 
literacy and the fact that texts were read aloud helps us to understand that 
Perpetua's dream accounts may well have been "said" before they were written 
and that once written they may have been subject to revision for oral 
presentation. This may have been done, one imagines, for convenience of 
presentation, to enhance the story's vividness or to convey a specific 
theological or political point of view. Admittedly, there is no evidence, 
paleographic or otherwise, that this occurred. However, it is worth speculating 
upon if one is concerned with the question of whether a textual description of 
dream symbols is an accurate depiction of the symbols as they appeared in the 
dream experience itself, a critical issue for all interpreters, ancient or modern. 

31 Ibid., 8. 

32 Ibid., 30. 

14 



The questions of authorship, literacy and composition are linked. 
Musurillo notes that "If we may believe the anonymous author" (that is, the 
narrator), Perpetua's account was "written from the martyrs' own words." 33 But 
in Musurillo's translation the way the narrator actually puts it is "according to her 
own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down." (Pass. 2. 3). There 
appear to be contradictions here, or at least the possibility of confusion. Was 
the account written from Perpetua's words but not by Perpetua herself? Was it 
written from her ideas or from her words? Did she write the text as we have it or 
did she transmit it to another who wrote it in the way, that is the style or manner, 
of Perpetua? With Gamble's concerns in mind, we must ask at the outset 
whether Perpetua was literate enough to write things down. Gamble's 
estimation that only 10-15% of the Greco-Roman world was literate, if correct, 
seems to put the burden of proof on those arguing for Perpetua's literacy. 
Based on the percentages, it is more likely than not that any given individual in 
the early third century was illiterate. However, the text tells us that Perpetua 
was a woman "of good family and upbringing" (Pass. 2.1) and-at least from a 
modern sociological viewpoint-one may expect that literacy was higher among 
families of this sort, thus raising the odds a bit. Joyce E. Salisbury writes that 
"The use of language in Perpetua's diary reveals her to be well educated" and 
finds evidence that "Roman families valued education for their daughters." 34 
Perhaps this boosts the chances of Perpetua's literacy even further, but only if 
the "language" is indeed Perpetua's. 

Salisbury may be correct about language and about education, points in 
favor of Perpetua's literacy, but she assumes without question that the diary was 

33 Musurillo, xxv. 

34 Salisbury, 7. 

15 



indeed written by Perpetua and in her hand. Gamble has taught us to be 
suspicious of such assumptions. We know that "writing" may mean something 
quite different from our modern conception of it; it could include dictation to 
someone or collaboration with someone. It is also possible that Perpetua may 
have been the author of her story in that she lived it and spoke of it, but that 
nevertheless the text was written by someone else and that the phrase "she 
herself wrote it down" is no more than a literary convention of the time. We 
know that authorship was rarely exclusive in antiquity. Any anonymous early 
Christian, writing about Perpetua's martyrdom, would feel justified by 
convention to attribute the story to her both as a tribute and as a means of 
making the text more important and dramatic. We have seen this convention 
used, to cite an obvious example, in those letters attributed to St. Paul but not 
written by him. We must also question what writing materials Perpetua would 
have normally used (parchment, for example?) and whether such materials 
would have been readily available to her in prison, even if she had the help of 
her family and fellow Christians on the outside. And if the manuscript was 
written in prison, how was it brought out and by whom and for what reason? We 
may never know the answers to these questions, but they are worth asking as 
they lead us to reflect not only on the Perpetua text itself, but also on the 
historical environment in which it was written. In so doing, we assure that our 
own personal and theoretical predispositions do not lead us too far from the 
realities of 203 CE. 

Musurillo and others have based their translations on nine manuscripts 
in Latin and one in Greek. It appears that the earliest Latin manuscript extant 
was uncovered in 1663 at the library of Montecassino; a twelfth-century Greek 

16 



version was found over two hundred years later, in 1889, at the library of the 
Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem. 35 If, for argument's sake, we accept Perpetua's 
original authorship, we still must pause over how her words might have been 
changed over the history of the various manuscript versions. We know for 
certain that an editor had a hand in the sections which frame Perpetua's 
narrative; how many other editors or scribes might have added to or deleted 
from the text from the time of its original composition to the time of the earliest 
manuscript which we have? Gamble tells us that few texts were copied 
perfectly and that intentional and unintentional scribal and editorial changes 
may have been the rule rather than the exception. In the North African 
environment of the time, in a climate of both political and religious change, there 
may have been reason for the molding of the text in this way or that to suit the 
goals of the editor or transmitter of the story. This would not be unusual as the 
alteration or rephrasing of texts was common in ancient times. But it is also true 
that the only Perpetua we have today is the Perpetua of the text and that 
quarrels about authorship must ultimately remain unresolved, save for the 
discovery of new evidence. 

The distribution and dissemination of the text must have been rapid. 
Salisbury writes that after Perpetua's death, "she and her companions would 
have immediately been accorded the veneration they had earned." 36 Soon 
thereafter, accounts of Perpetua's martyrdom would have been circulated, 
requiring multiple copies of the text. Salisbury notes that by the time of 



35 See Pio Franchi De' Cavalieri, La Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Rome: Roemische 
Quartalschrift, 1896), 10. For a discussion of the various early manuscript versions of the Passio 
and issues of their priority, see Jacqueline Amat, Passion de Perpetue et de Felicite suivi des 
Actes, Sources Chretiennes 417 (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1996), 51-66. 

36 Salisbury, 170. 

17 



"37 



Constantine's reign the anniversary of the martyrdom was part of the church 
calendar and that by the time of Augustine "People [in Carthage] heard the 
account of her passion and venerated the text almost as if it were Scripture. 
The implication is that if the text was accorded such veneration it may also have 
been almost as widely distributed, particularly in Carthage and environs, as 
Scripture. With the increase of the text's popular impact and circulation, 
Perpetua's original story would have been "explained and modified by 
churchmen who wanted to shape the vision offered by the powerful and 
personal account of the martyr." 38 And so possible changes, as well as 
explanations and interpretations of the text, including the dream account and 
the symbols contained therein, would have proliferated. 

In any study of the Perpetua text one must also address the issue of 
translation. Some contemporary interpreters of the dream text have chosen to 
do their own translations, usually based on either the critical Latin and Greek 
edition of van Beek 39 or the more recent Latin work of Musurillo. Others have 
relied solely on Musurillo's English translation. Still others have preferred the 
English of W. H. Shewring, Armitage Robinson, Rosemary Rader or unnamed 
translators. And there are French, German and Italian translations as well. The 
question of translation is important because there is a possibility that an 
interpreter may see a dream symbol-Christian, Freudian or otherwise--or 
particularly pregnant phrase that exists only because of his or her own choice in 
finding a modern language equivalent for a Latin word. 

One example, with broad interpretive significance, involves Perpetua's 



37 Ibid. See also, Quasten, 181 
36 Ibid. 

39 



C. I. M. I. van Beek, trans., "Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis", Florilegium Patristicum 
Fasciculus 43 (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1938). 

18 



words "et facta sum masculus" {Pass. 10. 7), used in a section of the dream 
narrative in which she is preparing to fight an Egyptian in the arena. Should 
this be read as Musurillo has it, "and suddenly I was a man," or as Kenneth 
Fisher argues, merely "that Perpetua had become 'manly'." 40 The former would 
lead one to an interpretation involving literal gender-crossing and a host of 
observations involving female-male transformations in biblical and other 
religious literature, while the latter might indicate only that Perpetua's strength 
increased so that she was, figuratively speaking, as strong as a man. Different 
translations clearly may lead to different interpretations. Yet another instance in 
which translation becomes significant is cited by Frederick C. Klawiter. In this 
example, Perpetua has just had a dream in which her dead brother Dinocrates 
appears to her in a suffering state. Klawiter translates "et feci pro illo orationem 
die et nocte gemens et lacrimans ut mihi donaretur" (Pass. 7.10) as "And I 
prayed for him day and night, sighing and shedding tears, that he might be 
pardoned for me." 41 Musurillo expresses the Latin as "And I prayed for my 
brother day and night with tears and sighs that this favor might be granted me." 
Klawiter is eager to establish Perpetua as a Montanist confessor with the 
priestly power to pardon sins; by using the conclusive "pardoned for me" 
instead of the far more equivocal "granted me" he advances his cause. The 
point is that if an interpreter of Perpetua's dreams seeks to buttress his or her 
case by stressing the importance of a particular word or phrase in English, it 
may be advisable to ask whether there is any other reasonable alternative to 



40 Kenneth Fisher, "Transsexual or Gender Themes in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis?," 
unpublished paper, 13. 

41 Frederick C. Klawiter, "The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly 
Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study of Montanism," Church History 49 
(September 1980): 257. 

19 



the interpreter's translation of that word or phrase. One might further ask 
whether it is prudent to stake an entire interpretation of a dream text on a single 
word or words when there is a question as to the word's original meaning. 

In this chapter we have attempted to show how issues of text and original 
authorial intent are important in assessing whether an interpreter has satisfied a 
criterion of appropriateness. The argument is not to disallow imaginative 
interpretation, but to assure that it is rooted in history and in what factual 
information we do have. Similarly, we will see in Chapter Five that a ministry of 
trusteeship must also concern itself with issues of appropriateness and must 
show an awareness of historic and existing institutional dynamics which are 
much akin to textual analysis. These dynamics include a realization that 
preunderstandings exist in all interpretive situations, whether scholarly, 
administrative, or pastoral. While we will primarily explore the common factors 
shared by all interpreters, we will also touch on a second point, that of the 
trustee as visionary. Perpetua's real dreams (as well as those of the other 
women considered in Chapter Four) allowed her to disseminate her ideas; the 
figurative dreams of a trustee can do the same. 



20 



traditions throughout history" and that religious dreamers have "drawn upon 
their dreams for spiritual guidance, to heal their suffering, to overcome their 
troubles, and to pursue a good, fulfilling life." 42 Scholars have noted that dreams 
and dream interpretations are critical elements of seminal texts as varied as the 
Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Bible. In biblical times, little distinction was 
made between the dreaming and waking states; both were commonly held to 
be equally real and equally meaningful. Louis M. Savary has commented on 
the "central place dreams held in the lives of the Hebrew prophets, leaders and 
people" and how "the God of Israel often directed the history of the chosen 
people by means of dreams." 43 Hebrew Bible dream examples abound; a 
sampling might include Abraham's offspring dream (Gen 15: 12-16), Jacob's 
ladder dream (Gen 28: 10-17), Joseph's dreams and interpretations of dreams 
(Gen 37: 5-11; 40: 5-19; 41: 1-32), Solomon's dream of wisdom (1 Kings 3: 5- 
15) and dreams in the life of Daniel (Dan 2-4). New Testament examples might 
include Joseph's dream regarding Mary (Mat 1 : 20-21), Peter's dream/vision 
(Acts 10: 3-20), and Paul's night dreams/visions (Acts 16:9; 18:9; 23:1 1 ; 27:23). 
Dreams in Greco-Roman times, for Christian and pagan alike, were the 
subject of much debate. The majority view, though by no means uncontested, 
was that they were an authoritative means of communication between the deity 
and humankind. If properly interpreted, dreams were held to be prophetic and 
revelatory of God's will. In such cases, for Christians, it was God himself who 
would provide the interpretation and the proofs attesting to the dream's divine 



42 Kelly Bulkeley, The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meaning of Dreams in 
Modern Western Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), xi, 3. 

43 Louis M. Savary, Patricia H. Berne and Strephon Kaplan Williams, Dreams and Spiritual Growth: 
A Christian Approach to Dreamwork (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 13, 3. 

22 



CHAPTER TWO 
PERPETUA'S DREAMS IN CONTEXT: DREAM INTERPRETATION IN 

ANCIENT TIMES 

Until now we have dealt with Perpetua's dreams as part of a specific 
ancient text, "The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas," with all the 
notions of authorship, dissemination, mediation, and translation which relate to 
such a text. We have done so because of the importance interpreters have 
invested in Perpetua's exact written words as they have come down to us. We 
have thought it valuable to investigate the origin of these words and the 
trustworthiness of the English texts as we have them precisely because theories 
about Perpetua and the meaning of her dreams depend so much on 
presuppositions regarding the composition and accuracy of the dream 
narrative. If you question one you must question the other. There are, of 
course, other equally compelling approaches to Perpetua's dreams. One of 
these is to set her dreams in the larger context of dream theory in ancient times. 
Perpetua experienced her dreams in a specific time and place and it is 
reasonable to contend that she and the earliest mediators of her text were 
influenced by what the culture of the ancient world thought and said about 
dreams. 

In the introductory pages of his book, The Wilderness of Dreams, Kelly 

Bulkeley observes that dreams "have played an important role in religious 

21 



origin. 44 Such dreams, however, were uncommon. Most dreams were thought 
to be lacking in any special religious content and were deemed mere natural 
phenomena; and "superstitious divination through dreams" was "severely 
forbidden by God as an immoral practice." 45 For pagans, the dream was an 
essential nexus in which "The change of reality-level acts as a cushion to soften 
the contact between god and man." 46 That is, without the shield a dream 
provided to the dreamer, the shock of the proximity of the gods would have 
been too great for a mortal to handle. Of course, one must also acknowledge 
that there is a problem in accepting any broad generalization about dreams and 
dream interpretation in Mediterranean antiquity. Robert M. Berchman quite 
wisely warns that "In complex cultures such as these one should not expect to 
find one attitude toward dreams. ...Indeed, it is not possible to talk of a general 
ancient attitude toward dreams and their interpretation without differentiating 
between epochs, locales, and their cultural and social environments." 47 

With this statement in mind, we will look at several ancient writers, both 
pagan and Christian, and attempt to determine what each thought generally 
about dreams, where dreams came from, and what dreams meant. The benefit 
of such an exercise is not only to test Berchman's proposition, but also to place 
Perpetua's dreams in an historical continuum and to observe what ancient 
dream interpreters might have thought (or did think) about her dreams. 



44 A. M. Cuk, "Dream" in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.4 (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 
1967), 1055. 

45 Ibid. 

46 Andrew Karp, "Prophecy and Divination in Archaic Greek Literature" in Robert M. Berchman, 
ed., Mediators of the Divine: Horizons of Prophecy, Divination, Dreams and Theurgy in 
Mediterranean A ntiquity (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 21. 

47 Robert M. Berchman, "Arcana Mundi: Magic and Divination in the De Somnisol Philo of 
Alexandria" in Mediators, 116-7. 

23 



Aristotle 

Not all ancient writers were thoroughly convinced of the veracity of 
dreams, nor did they all agree with the generally accepted perception that 
dreams were sent by the deity. In the introduction to his translation of Aristotle's 
three essays on dreams, David Gallop notes that "Long before Aristotle's day 
the belief that dreams were objective visions of the supernatural had been 
challenged by rationalist thinkers of the early fifth century [BCE]." 48 Gallop cites 
Xenophanes and Heraclitus as two such thinkers. But Aristotle is perhaps the 
most strident of the ancients in his repudiation of the established, traditional 
appraisal of dreams as predictive and sent by the gods. Aristotle argues that 
dreams are creative, works of the human imagination that serve no purpose and 
have no oracular function. Reading Aristotle on dreams, one is led to agree 
with Gallop that Aristotle conceives of dreams as "private episodes in 
consciousness" and that he believed that "correspondences between dreams 
and future events are mostly coincidence." 49 

Aristotle's argument against the god-sent, predictive or instructive value 
of dreams rests in part on his assessment of those who have such dreams. In 
"On Divination Through Sleep" he writes that "apart from its further irrationality, 
the idea that it is God who sends dreams, and yet that he sends them not to the 
best and most intelligent, but to random people, is absurd." 50 That common 
people may have meaningful, inspired dreams seems to bother Aristotle. One 
cannot resist speculating that he might be concerned about losing some of his 



48 Aristotle, Aristotle on Sleep and Dreams, trans, and intro. David Gallop (Lewiston, NY: Broadview 
Press, 1990), 5. 

49 Ibid., 44-5. 

50 Ibid., 103. 

24 



own authority as a philosopher if the ordinary person in the street could, through 
dreams, claim the authority and wisdom of the gods. Aristotle is uncomfortable 
with the possibility that dreams may empower "random people" and thus 
deprive the philosopher of his superiority. If dreams are not sent by the gods, 
where does Aristotle think they come from? Patricia Cox Miller's reading is that 
"For Aristotle, sleep and the dreams that occur during it are essentially products 
of the digestive process, during which heat rises and falls through the body." 51 
Aristotle sees dreams as daemonic, as nature is, and as belonging to the 
natural, physical order of things. "During sleep," he contends, "judgment is 
disabled from exercising its function. Thus, a perceptual remnant bearing some 
resemblance to a sense-impression is mistaken for the real one." 52 

What of those people who have dreams which do come true and which 
correctly forecast the future? Aristotle finds them no different than lucky 
gamblers. He reasons that it is "because they experience many movements of 
every kind that they just happen to encounter sights resembling real events, 
being fortunate in those, like certain people who play at odds and evens." 53 
Without denying the importance of Aristotle's observations, one wonders 
whether his conclusions do not rest as much on his personal desire to see the 
world as a rational place as they do on objective, experimental study. If Aristotle 
wants to retain his power as a philosopher, he cannot brook the illogical or the 
supernatural aspects of dreams, particularly if the purveyors of this illogic are 
common people. Aristotle may be shaping his dream theories in answer to his 
own needs and to justify his own position in society. The authority of the 



51 Patricia Cox Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity : Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton: 
Princeton University Press, 1994), 43. 

52 Aristotle, 97. 

53 Ibid., 107. 

25 



philosopher increases as the authority of the dreamer declines. 

Aristotle's dream theory remained a minority view in ancient times, 
although it had its important adherents. Cicero, as Miller notes, "uses 
Aristotelian psychobiological arguments to explain the dream as a naturalistic 
phenomenon" and criticizes the practitioners of dream interpretation as 
mongers of "an inexact pseudo-science that trades on human credulity and an 
erroneous set of assumptions about the gods." 54 Cicero illustrates his distrust of 
dream interpreters by citing cases in which "the interpretation of dreams is 
geared more toward displaying the [false] sagacity of the interpreter than it is 
toward demonstrating the connections between dreaming and natural law." 55 
Like Aristotle, Cicero bristles at the idea of the untutored dream diviner 
possessing authority or seeking power beyond his station through dream 
interpretation. While Aristotle's and Cicero's arguments have force, they are 
also somewhat ad hominem. Dream interpreting is fraudulent because dream 
interpreters are uneducated and common. Dreams don't come from the gods 
because the gods wouldn't want to communicate with ignorant people. Would it 
be too unhistorical to call both Aristotle and Cicero elitist? One can imagine 
them debunking Perpetua's dreams as devoid of any importance because the 
dreamer herself was neither a philosopher nor a man of letters, but a mere 
North African woman. 

Asclepius 
Miller does find one area in which Cicero "was willing to allow dreams a 
useful function," and that w as medicine. 56 Followers of the Greek god Asclepius 

54 Miller, 44. 

55 Ibid., 45. 

56 Ibid., 46. 

26 



had been visiting temples dedicated to him in Epidaurus for curative purposes 

ever since the mid-fourth century BCE, and continued to do so well into the 

Christian era. In their two volume study of the testimonies to Asclepius, Emma 

and Ludwig Edelstein point out that Asclepius's popularity was due to the god's 

ability to heal through dreams, a power which even some Christians admitted 

was real. "Of all the Greek gods," they write, "he persisted longest in exercising 

his full and undiminished power," even after Christianity was made the state's 

religion. 57 Asclepius was thought to heal through dreams which believers 

incubated while sleeping within the temple precincts. Miller describes the 

process thus: 

After entering the place of incubation, the sufferers were told to be 
silent and go to sleep. ...conversations [were] held the next 
morning among suppliants and between suppliants and 
temple wardens concerning the dreams that had occurred 
during the night. If a healing dream had been given, a thank- 
offering was due to the god. 



58 



Evidence of the curative powers of dreams abounds at Epidaurus in the 

form of stelae. The Edelsteins have recorded many of these and we may 

consider three as typical examples. 

Pandarus, a Thessalian, who had marks on his forehead. He saw 
a vision as he slept. When day came he got up... and saw his 
face free of the marks. 59 

Euhippus had had for six years the point of a spear in his jaw. As 
he was sleeping in the Temple the god extracted the spearhead 
and gave it to him in his hands. 



60 



Alcetas of Halieis. The blind man saw a dream. It seemed to him 



57 Emma J. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the 
Testimonies, vol. 2 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), 138. 

58 Miller, 111. 

59 Edelstein and Edelstein, vol. 1, 231. 

60 Ibid., 232. 

27 



that the god came up to him and with his fingers opened his eyes, 
and that he first saw the trees in the sanctuary. At daybreak he 
walked out sound. 61 



In most cases the dreamer saw Asclepius in his sleep and the god himself 
performed the cure. The Edelsteins remind us that "In doing all this the god did 
not act contrary to any of the established scientific or philosophical theories... . 
He simply acted like a god." 62 If people (i) believed in the gods, (ii) came to the 
sanctuary with the intention of dreaming, (iii) had a dream, and (iv) were 
subsequently cured, it is understandable that the cure be attributed to the power 
of the god. Or as the Edelsteins put it, it is natural that "anybody who in a world 
in which the gods were still alive should visit a temple and wait for a divine 
vision would have such dreams." 63 

How did the cures occur? The dreamed god shared his power with the 
sufferer and the dream empowered the sick to cure themselves. The 
transference of power acted as a kind of autosuggestion which stimulated the 
healing process. This is one possible explanation of how these cures actually 
took place. Other suggestions-that therapies were secretly administered by 
physicians, that the priests fraudulently impersonated the god and employed 
natural remedies, that the cures never took place and the stelae were 
redactions of old oral tradition-may be interesting, but are not supported by 
much evidence. The Edelsteins suggest that the dreams and cures "can be 
accounted for only against the background of the society in which they 
happened... . Asclepius' healings, then, being the deeds of a Greek god, must 



61 Ibid., 233. 

62 Ibid., vol. 2, 157-8. 

63 Ibid., 163. 

28 



be interpreted in relation to Greek life and Greek medicine." 64 In other words, 
the dreamer, the dream, the interpreter and the recording of the cure are all 
shaped by the society and culture in which the event took place. They cannot 
be understood outside of that context. We might apply this suggestion to 
Perpetua and her dreams as well. If we are to understand the meaning of her 
dreams to Perpetua and to the Christian community of Carthage, we must first 
understand the life and character of that community. Perpetua's dream of the 
curing of her brother Dinocrates is similar to the dream experiences of those 
who visited the temple of Asclepius. As a Christian, Perpetua may have 
believed that her dead brother would have been made whole in the afterlife 
because of her prayers. What she believed, what was accepted as true by her 
community, was what she dreamed. We are once again led back to the 
importance of the historical setting of an event to its subsequent recording and 
later interpretation. 

Artemidorus 
The Oneirocritica of Artemidorus is a series of five books written in the 
second century CE which set out to understand and categorize dream material. 
Artemidorus's approach to dreams has been called rational and practical; the 
latter quality is well illustrated by his remark that one should "offer two 
interpretations whenever he is uncertain as to which one is correct." 65 In the 
introduction to his translation of the Oneirocritica, Robert White observes that 
Artemidorus dodges thorny questions such as whether or not dreams come 
from the gods and instead seeks to devise "a uniform set of laws governing the 



64 Ibid. 

65 Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams: Oneirocritica, trans, and commentary, Robert J. 
White (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1975), 9. 

29 



dream and a workable system for categorizing dream material." 66 Artemidorus 
is concerned less with the philosophy of dreams-the how and why-and more 
with their usefulness. His insistence that a good interpreter must know a 
dreamer's occupation, where he or she lives, and how accurately a dream has 
been reported, indicates that he would have approved of the Edelsteins' plea 
(noted above in the section on Asclepius) that dreams must be judged against 
the background of the society in which they occur. Although Artemidorus 
sought to establish rules for the interpretation of dreams, he was more of a 
relativist than an absolutist. He is quick to urge the interpreter not to blindly rely 
on his manual but to "prepare himself from his own resources and to use his 
native intelligence" to uncover a dream's meaning. 67 

Much of the Oneirocritica reads like a code book or rather a key to a code 
book. Dreams of salted meat mean delay and postponement; goats are 
inauspicious; Pluto and Persephone mean good luck; stilts are equated with 
criminality; a loom signifies a trip abroad, and so on. 68 But Artemidorus adds to 
his dream encyclopedia the advice that every interpretation should have 
plausibility and common sense regardless of the individual symbols decoded. 
He favors reliance on experience and inference over rote learning, counseling 
that "the interpretation of dreams is nothing other than the juxtaposition of 
similarities." 69 He develops his own criteria of appropriateness for dream 
interpretation, embracing the practical and reasonable and maintaining a 
suspicion of the purely reductionist or fanciful assessment. 

A power analysis of Artemidorus and his work indicates a shift in 



66 Ibid., 7. 

67 Ibid., 22. 



68 Ibid., 53, 94, 122, 162, 167. 

69 Ibid., 106. 

30 



authority and importance from the dreamer and dream to the interpreter. True, 
the dreamer's life may be enhanced by the predictive discoveries of his or her 
dream, and the dream itself is critical because it contains the raw material for 
analysis. But it is clear that the hero of the Oneirocritica is the interpreter and it 
is the interpreter who benefits most from the specialized knowledge contained 
in the book. Authority rests with the interpreter, to whom the dreamer goes for 
explanation and help. Artemidorus, a "dedicated, sometimes shifty, but always 
personable man" 70 has made himself the critical element in the dreamer-dream- 
interpreter triangle. He uses dream analysis to assure his essentiality and to 
enhance his own worth. In this practice he is the forerunner of the Freudian and 
Jungian analysts whom we will encounter in Chapter Three. 

Can we analyze Perpetua's dreams using Artemidorus' techniques, 
much as modern interpreters have used the techniques of Freud or Jung to 
analyze the Passio? What might Artemidorus have said about the symbols in 
Perpetua's dreams? Would he have assigned them any predictive value? 
Artemidorus would no doubt have been sympathetic to our reservations 
regarding authorship inasmuch as he insisted that no detail be "added to or 
omitted from the dream." 71 He would want to make sure that Perpetua's dreams 
were indeed her own and not, for example, Tertullian's, for he would have been 
sure to have provided differing interpretations to a young mother and to a well- 
educated theologian. Since Artemidorus never had the opportunity to interpret 
Perpetua's dreams, I have attempted an Artemidoran approach myself, 
matching Perpetua's symbols with explanations from the Oneirocritica in order 
to show the breath of the spectrum of possible interpretations. 

70 lbid., 10. 
71 Ibid., 8. 

31 



If we examine the major symbols in Perpetua's first dream using the 
Oneirocritica as a guide, we find the following: (i) The ladder signifies travel 
and change, (ii) weapons suggest both discord and courage, (iii) the dragon 
could signify a king and also an enemy, (iv) a garden indicates a slowness of 
time and specifically for a woman, slander, (v) a shepherd is an auspicious sign, 
(vi) white clothes have many meanings, but most often signify disturbances or 
death, (vii) milk, too, has many meanings, but usually signifies profit or loss, 
marriage or death. The purpose of this somewhat naive exercise is to 
demonstrate that if one reads Perpetua's dream through the eyes of a pagan, 
one sees only pagan symbols and comes up with a very non-Christian 
interpretation. For example, based on the above symbol analysis, a pagan 
dream interpreter familiar with the Oneirocritica might have concluded that 
Perpetua was about to quarrel with her fellow prisoners, leave the prison, 
reconsider her religious commitment, denounce the Christians, reunite with her 
husband and live happily ever after. The suggestion is that the interpreter 
controls the interpretation. 

There was no bright line between what we might call the pagan and 
Christian concept of dreams. Students of dreams from both camps shared an 
appreciation of the reality of the oneiric imagination and most thought dreams 
important and relevant to the waking life. It was generally accepted that dreams 
could contain messages from beyond this world, whether from a deity or 
another source, and might have value in the waking world, whether as a guide 
to the future or a predictor of it. Christian attitudes toward dreams were of 
course influenced by the pagan (and perhaps Jewish) culture with which 
Christians would have been familiar. Let us now consider the dream notions of 

32 



two important early Christian thinkers. 

Tertullian 
The early Christian community, particularly that of North Africa, put great 
stock in dreams, believing that it was "in visions that the encounter between the 
self and the divine takes place." 72 As we have seen, dreams were important 
because they came or could come from God; they could reveal his will and 
predict the future. They were thought to be an authoritative means of 
communication between the deity and his creation. Dreams must have been 
common for Perpetua, who even before her first recorded vision "knew that I 
could speak with the Lord" (Pass. 4. 2). Robeck takes this to mean that 
"conversing with the Lord was something to which she was already regularly 
accustomed." 73 And this "conversing" most probably occurred in a dream or 
trance state. Perpetua's ability to ask for and receive revelatory dreams may 
have been enhanced by her position as a confessor, one who was about to be 
martyred. "Confessors and martyrs of that day were thought to have a unique 
position before the Lord to ask for certain things and to expect their requests to 
be granted," notes Robeck, "and there is no apparent reason why Perpetua 
would not have been aware of such an idea." 74 As a martyr-to-be, Perpetua 
could ask for a vision and "could converse directly with God." 75 Patricia Cox 
Miller, whose interpretations we will consider later, observes that "persecution 
and oneiric revelation formed a pair as the imminence of death provoked 



72 Elizabeth A. Petroff, Medieval Women's Visionary Literature (New York and Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 1986), 44. 



73 Robeck, 20. 

74 Ibid., 43. 



75 Patricia Wilson-Kastner and others, A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of The Early Church 
(Washington DC: University Press of America, 1981), 6. 

33 



"76 



premonitory dreams. 

However, not all early Christians were as sure of the origin, import and 
meaning of dreams as was Perpetua. Consider, for example, the case of 
Tertullian. Tertullian and Perpetua share a North African heritage and a late 
second to early third century historical locus. The names of the two have often 
been linked, as noted above, as possible joint authors of the Passio. But where 
Perpetua was herself a visionary, a prophetic dreamer who knew with certainty 
that her dreams came from God and actively employed them in support of her 
faith, Tertullian approached dreams carefully and analytically, perhaps 
reflecting his training as a rhetorician and lawyer. In Chapter 45 of "A Treatise 
on the Soul," he asks rhetorically "what is the opinion of Christians respecting 
dreams?" 77 He provides his answers in the following four chapters, which 
Joyce Salisbury calls "the first Christian study of the subject." 78 Tertullian, as 
Robeck neatly summarizes him, first argues that sleep is "a natural state, not 
something of a supernatural character, and as a result it may be described as a 
'reasonable work of God.'" 79 Second, he maintains that when one is strongly 
imbued with God's power, one falls into an ecstatic state. Third, "When both 
sleep and ecstasy come to a person that person dreams." 80 Tertullian accepts 
dreams as real and as evidence that the soul is active even when the body rests 
in sleep; the dreamer, therefore, is in full possession of his mental faculties, 
faculties which in dreams can provide either wisdom or nonsense. In 
formulating his own dream theory, Tertullian leans on others who have gone 



76 Miller, 150. 

77 Tertullian, "A Treatise on the Soul" in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts 
and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Ml: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), 223. 

78 Salisbury, 95. 

79 Robeck, 104. 

80 Ibid., 105. 



34 



before him. He surveys the opinions of Epicurus, Homer, Aristotle, and 
Herodotus on the character of dreams and recounts the recorded dreams of 
Caesar, Cicero, Socrates and Sophocles. All this is done to buttress his 
conclusion that there are three categories of dreams. 

In the first category are diabolical dreams, "inflicted on us mainly by 
demons," which "aim after evil" and show themselves to be "vain, and deceitful, 
and obscure, and wanton, and impure." 81 Sometimes such dreams are indeed 
predictive and come true, but they should always be regarded with suspicion 
and wariness. He warns that such dangerous dreams may come to people not 
only "in shrines and temples" (is he thinking of Asclepius?), but also in "our very 
homes." 82 The second category is reserved for dreams that have come from 
God. These dreams "may be compared to the actual grace of God" and are 
"honest, holy, prophetic, inspired, instructive, inviting to virtue." 83 It is from this 
type of dream that "almost the greatest part of mankind get their knowledge of 
God." 84 Perhaps Tertullian's enthusiasm for this God-sent type of dream may 
reflect his interest in the New Prophecy movement and Montanus, a subject 
which we will review in the next section. Tertullian's third category of dream is a 
catch-all for dreams that are "neither from God, nor from diabolical inspiration" 
and cannot be interpreted; they are caused purely by "the ecstatic state and its 
peculiar conditions." 85 

Tertullian places himself firmly in the camp that believes dreams to come 
from a supernatural source outside of the body-whether from God or demon- 



81 Tertullian, 225. 

82 Ibid. 

83 Ibid. 

84 Ibid., 226. 

85 Ibid. 

35 



and in opposition to the Aristotelian view that dreams are a natural bodily 
function. He examines the contention that dreams are influenced by the 
seasons of the year, the time of night, the side one sleeps on, and whether or 
not one fasts, and concludes by saying that all such statements depend on 
"ingenious conjecture rather than certain proof." 86 Tertullian appears to want to 
occupy a middle ground where there is room for belief in God-sent dreams but 
where there is also skepticism about the possibility of dream incubation and 
rejection of dreams coming from sources other than God. He is silent on the 
issue of how one actually tells a diabolic dream from a dream sent by God. 
Does one need an interpreter? Does one need to feel holy or saintly, or, like 
Perpetua, be a confessor? Do dreams from God differ in symbolic content from 
demonic dreams? These are questions Tertullian does not answer directly, 
although one can venture to impute answers to him. In Chapter 55 of "A 
Treatise on the Soul," Tertullian deals with the Christian idea of Hades and 
Paradise and relies on Perpetua for a description of the latter place. His 
assumption that "the revelation which she received of Paradise" 87 was accurate 
indicates that he believed (i) that dreams sent to confessors or martyrs are by 
their nature true, from God and not demonic; (ii) one does not need a 
professional interpreter to decode a dream sent by God because its meaning is 
clear; and (iii) dream evidence is as valid as (or more valid than) waking 
sensory experience. Although he sees authority in dreams, Tertullian seems to 
shy away from making that authority his own. At least in "A Treatise on the 
Soul," he does not claim for himself any power that can be traced either to 



86 Ibid. 

87 Tertullian, 231. It has been noted that Tertullian incorrectly attributes this dream to Perpetua; 
the text, at Chapter 4, has it as a vision of Saturus. However, it should not matter for the purpose 
of demonstrating Tertullian's position on dreams. 

36 



dreams or to their interpretation. In this regard he further separates himself from 

both earlier (e.g., Artemidorus) and later (e.g., Freud) interpreters who seek to 

remove the power and authority of the dream from the dreamer and make it their 

own. 

Augustine 

Augustine, writing about two hundred years after Tertullian, cails dreams 

"visitations in sleep" and recounts his own experience of a predictive dream in 

which 

Profuturus, and Privatus, and Servilius, holy men who within my 
recollection were removed by death from our monastery, 
spoke to me, and the events of which they spoke came to pass 
according to their words. Or if it be some other higher spirit that 
assumes their form and visits our minds, I leave this to the all- 
seeing eye of Him before whom everything from the highest to the 
lowest is uncovered. 88 

This shows, as Miller notes, that Augustine had no doubt that the dreams we 
see in sleep have an independent existence, "even if he was uncertain what 
that existence is." 89 Augustine thought that dreams were instructive and carried 
God's teaching, but he could not explain-as Aristotle and Tertullian sought to 
do-how they occurred, what provoked them, or why they came to certain 
people, except to say (as in the case of the dreams of his mother) that those 
who have dreams which reflect God's teachings must be saintly. "For my part," 
he wrote, "I am wholly unable to explain in words how these semblances of 
material bodies, without any real body, are produced." 90 He allows that "it is 
free to everyone to believe or disbelieve" in the veracity of dreams and that he is 



88 Augustine, The Letters of St. Augustin" in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol.1, ed. 
Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Ml: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 512. 

89 Miller, 41 . 

90 Augustine, "Letters," 514. 

37 



open to other explanations of how dreams work. 91 Modestly, he confesses that 

as I discover more plainly my inability to account for the ordinary 
facts of our experience, when awake or asleep, throughout the 
whole course of our lives, the more do I shrink from venturing 
to explain what is extraordinary. 92 

Augustine's honesty and willingness to learn more about dreams are refreshing 
attributes. His own oneiric experience has convinced him that instructive 
dreams are real and must come, as does all wisdom, from God. Yet he is open- 
minded about exactly how this happens. 

Augustine's first encounter with dream interpretation may have come 
from his mother, Monica. In Chapter 1 1 of the Confessions, Augustine tells of a 
dream which his mother had and then relates that he "tried to put this 
construction on it." 93 In other words, he tried to interpret it. And according to 
Salisbury, Monica herself "repeatedly interpreted her dreams to her famous 
son, and he accepted her interpretation because he was sure that her dreams 
were sent by God." 94 What about Augustine's interpretation of Perpetua's 
dreams? We should note in passing, along with Thomas J. Heffernan, that 
Augustine was not entirely convinced that Perpetua was the actual author of the 
Passio 95 He raises a doubt in "On the Soul and Its Origin" where, referring to 
the Passio's author, he indicates that it was Perpetua "or whoever it was that 
wrote the account." 96 That "or whoever" suggests that either Augustine may 



91 Ibid. 

92 Ibid., 513. 

93 Augustine, "The Confessions of St. Augustin" in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 
(Grand Rapids, Ml: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 67. 

94 Salisbury, 97. 

95 Thomas J. Heffernan, "Philology and Authorship in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et 
Felicitatis" in Traditio 50, ed. C. H. Lohr and others (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995), 
316. 

98 Augustine, "On the Soul and Its Origin" in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (Grand 
Rapids, Ml: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 320. 

38 



have had access to evidence which hinted at a co-author or a different author, 
or that he was just being overly cautious. Questions of authorship aside, 
Augustine thought that Perpetua's dream accounts and martyrdom were 
important enough for him to interpret them and to use them in his sermons. 

Salisbury discusses Augustine's commentary on Perpetua's dreams at 
length. She argues that Augustine in his sermons reshaped Perpetua's 
narrative to suit his own needs and the needs of a victorious rather than a 
besieged church community . Salisbury writes that Augustine "used the Passio 
to draw new morals relevant to the fourth century church" and sought to show 
that "the lessons drawn from the account of a martyrdom also should not 
contradict social obligations." 97 Augustine turned what some might consider an 
anti-establishment Perpetua into an establishment icon, using her life and the 
authority of her dreams for moral instruction. Let us examine some examples of 
how Augustine did this. In a sermon delivered at the end of the fourth century 
on the subject of honoring or disregarding parents, Augustine turns Perpetua's 
rather radical opposition to her father's wishes into a far tamer and admirable 
withstanding of cajolery by menfolk who do not act manly. 98 In another sermon 
dated somewhat later, Augustine tries to explain Perpetua's conduct toward her 
father, proposing that her disobedience was excused because it was the devil 
who spoke through her father, "with beguiling words, hoping that a religious 
spirit which would not be softened by the promptings of pleasure, might be 
broken by the attack of family duty and feelings." 99 In other words, Augustine 
maintains it was the devil whom Perpetua was resisting, not her father. Thus, 



"Salisbury, 172, 174. 

98 Augustine, "Sermons," in The Works of Saint Augustine, vol. 11, trans, and notes Edmund Hill, 



(Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 142. 
99 Ibid., vol. 8, 79. 

39 









' 



he reconciles Perpetua's rebelliousness against proper family behavior by 
arguing that since the devil had captured her father, it was socially acceptable 
for Perpetua to oppose him. 

On the topic of Perpetua's triumphs, Augustine wants to minimize the fact 
that Perpetua was a woman by positing that in her dream victories, "the sex of 
the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind" and so in her achievements it is 
not Perpetua the woman who triumphs but "him in whom they believed." 100 
Augustine, as Heffernan notes, "seeks to redirect his listeners' zeal from their 
worship of the martyrs as dramatis personae Iowa rd a greater theological 
understanding of their actions." 101 The shift is away from Perpetua as an 
independent, female rebel with an active imagination and toward a Perpetua 
who personifies for Augustine correct social and theological attitudes. It is also 
worth observing that Augustine at this point does not distinguish between 
Perpetua's dream life and her waking life. He praises Perpetua's trampling of 
the dragon and climbing of the ladder, both dream images, with as much 
conviction as he celebrates her real martyrdom in the arena. The conclusion 
we are led to draw is that Augustine believes dreams to be as important (and 
possibly as real) as occurrences in waking life. This is confirmed in another 
sermon in which Augustine treats the real-life handing over of Perpetua's infant 
son and her dragon-ladder-shepherd dream with equal attention and concern 
He does not see anything unusual in Perpetua's decision to give up her child 
because while the two may be spatially separated from each other in this world, 
neither mother nor child is separated from the love of Christ. In this manner, he 



102 



100 Ibid., 72. 

101 Heffernan, "Philology," 316. 

102 Augustine, "Sermons," vol.10, 429-30. 

40 



is able to justify Perpetua's seemingly harsh abandonment of her son; there is 
no real abandonment in Augustine's eyes because both mother and child are 
together in the love of Christ. Augustine sees Perpetua's dreams as showing 
the Lord's promises to the faithful, implying that promises made in dreams are 
as valid as promises made in conscious life. In both cases the individuality of 
Perpetua as a specific woman, a specific case, is subordinated to the broader 
theological constructs of Augustine. As Heffernan underscores, "the heroism of 
Perpetua is only possible because she, as a believer, is one with Christ, in 
whom there is neither male or female. [Augustine's] intent is to moderate the 
idea of independent agency in the actions of the martyrs and privilege the active 
role of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit." 103 

Augustine wants to honor the memory and deeds, both real and oneiric, 
of Perpetua (and Felicity) but he does not want to place women-martyrs or 
otherwise--on a par with men. Thus in his interpretation of the Passio in another 
sermon, he reminds his listeners that "there were men too who were martyrs" 
and that women should not be ranked higher than men; rather, "it was a greater 
miracle for women in their weakness to overcome the ancient enemy." 104 Sara 
Maitland comments that in Augustine's view of women, "The more heroic you 
were, the more it 'proved' the superiority of men." 105 

Ancient dream interpreters, both pagan and Christian, endeavored to 
understand dreams-Perpetua's and the dreams of others-and make them an 
integral part of their overall philosophies or theologies. Each saw the 



103 Heffernan, "Philology," 316. 

104 Augustine, "Sermons," vol. 8, 82. 



105 Sara Maitland, "Passionate Prayer: Masochistic Images in Women's Experience," in Sex and 
God: Some Varieties of Women's Religious Experience, ed. Linda Hurcombe (New York and 
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 131. 

41 



meaningfulness (or, in the case of Aristotle, meaninglessness) of dreams as a 
confirmation of his beliefs about human nature, society and God. Each applied 
the dream experience to a real life situation which existed in the present and 
from which a meaning or a lesson could be extracted. As we will see in the 
following chapter, modern interpreters have done the same. And some have 
gone even further. 



42 



CHAPTER THREE 
MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF PERPETUA AND HER DREAMS 

Contemporary scholars have been just as fascinated with the meaning 
and use of religious dreams as were those ancient commentators just reviewed. 
And modern interpreters have found considerable material in Perpetua's 
dreams to analyze and to reflect upon. In this chapter we will consider (i) how 
modern scholars have approached Perpetua's dreams, (ii) what techniques 
they have employed in their analyses, and (iii) what their conclusions tell us 
about Perpetua and about themselves. I have classified examples of modern 
interpretations into nine categories and have provided, in Chapter Four, a tenth 
of my own. Some scholars, of course, have employed more than one 
interpretive approach, but the categories-even if somewhat artificial-do serve a 
valid organizational purpose and provide a useful platform for investigation and 
debate. The categories I will evaluate are: Classical and Comparative; 
Theological, Patristic and Church Historical; Feminist; Freudian and Jungian; 
Post-Colonialist; Neurophysiological; Fictional; Popular; and the "Real" 
Perpetua in Her Historical Setting. 

Classical and Comparative 

In this section we will examine the interpretations of scholars of classical 

literature and the Greco-Roman world. For the most part, these writers have 

43 



chosen not to deal with the question of whether or not dreams are a natural 
process or come from the deity. Rather, they have tried to show that Perpetua's 
dreams reflect the secular culture with which she was familiar. They are 
comparative in approach and find evidence of classical literary influences on 
the form and content of Perpetua's writings, tracing the origins of her dream 
symbols to texts which she might have read. They also propose that a 
knowledge of the attitudes of the pagan Roman majority in the Carthage of the 
third century is critical to an understanding of why Perpetua was imprisoned, 
why she dreamed as she did, and why she was executed. 

Brent Shaw, for one, has found that Perpetua's dreams reflect "the 
'popular literature' of the period... to which a literate woman like Perpetua would 
have had access." 106 Behind his argument is the surmise that the symbols in 
Perpetua's dreams come not from an external source or from her imagination, 
but from what she read and from the culture around her. But how much popular 
or classical literature would Perpetua have read by age twenty-two? Would her 
Christian orientation have led her toward or away from the major authors of the 
pagan canon? One would like to know more about early Christian reading 
habits and the availability of books to families like Perpetua's in Carthage of the 
second and third centuries before accepting Shaw's contention. Mary Ann 
Rossi, relying on the work of Jacques Fontaine, observes that "the calm and 
simple tone of [Perpetua's] writing recalls Cicero's Dream of Scipio and Plato's 
Myth of Er at the end of the Republic.'" 07 Another literary-antecedent example is 
Shaw's discovery of similarities between certain episodes from Leucippe and 



106 Shaw, 9. 

107 Mary Ann Rossi, "The Passion of Perpetua, Everywoman of Late Antiquity," Pagan and 
Christian Anxiety: A Response to E. R. Dodds, ed. Robert C. Smith and John Lounibos (Lanham, 
MD and London: University Press of America, Inc., 1984), 56. 

44 



Clitophon and Perpetua's vision of resistance to the Egyptian in the arena in her 
fourth dream. 108 Does this imply that Perpetua borrowed either intentionally or 
unconsciously some of the themes of her dream composition from the novels 
and philosophy which she had read? Or does it imply that she may have dozed 
off while reading and absorbed the material at hand into her actual dreams? 
Such hypotheses may at first appear implausible and even absurd, but that is 
where the literary-antecedent approach takes us. The idea that an educated 
young woman might have been influenced by the literature of her time may be 
sound, but evidence for it is lacking. 

It is challenging enough for today's literary specialists to link the writings 
of a modern author to his or her literary ancestors; how much more challenging 
to search out with any degree of certainty the influences on Perpetua. Yet the 
attempts have been made. Robeck, following F. J. Doelger, points out that early 
Christians "had difficulty in separating their Christian teachings from the deeply 
rooted perceptions of the pagan folk literature." 109 E. R. Dodds, who expresses 
reservations about the true authorship of the Passio before concluding that the 
prison diary is authentic, also sees many classical references. He finds 
parallels in the dream accounts, particularly in the ladder symbol, to "Aristides' 
dreams, as well as [to] Mithraism" and concludes that "pagan imagery is entirely 
natural in the dreams of a quite recent convert." 110 

Peter Dronke, like Rossi, finds Virgilian sources for Perpetua's visions. 
He proposes that the linkage of dragon (or serpent), weapons and bronze 
ladder in her first dream "was inspired at least in part by Perpetua's reading of 



108 Shaw, 9. 

109 Robeck, 49. 

110 E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 1965), 52. " 

45 



the Aeneid" where the same "configuration of images" occurs. 111 Similarly, in 
the fourth dream, he notes "some reminiscences of Virgil's imagery for Pyrrhus" 
in the description of the "fearsome armed Egyptian." 112 A skeptical critic of this 
kind of scholarship might wonder if Perpetua read the Aeneid at the same time 
she was reading Leucippe and Clitophon. We must ask whether it is probable 
that she read her Virgil so carefully and thoroughly that she could approximate 
his descriptions in her dream diary. Or is it that the Aeneid so deeply 
impressed itself in her mind that its language merged with hers in her dream 
world? We will never know with certainty what classical literature Perpetua 
read and mastered, but it seems somewhat of a stretch to interpret the Aeneid 
as a source for her dream characters. Rather, one is left with the impression 
that it is the specialist-Rossi, Shaw or Dronke-not Perpetua, who is influenced 
by the classics. We are witnessing comparative literature scholars at work. 
The arguments illuminate their own scholarly interests rather than Perpetua's 
dreams and their interpretations are really no more than claims that they have 
noticed similar words and images in different writings. There is no conclusive or 
even compelling evidence that one literary work borrowed from the other. 

Once one begins to see traces of earlier authors in Perpetua's story there 
is really no end to how far one might go. For example, why couldn't Perpetua 
have read Antigone as well as the previously cited works? After all, as Mary 
Lefkowitz has noted in a review of the Sophocles play, it is "a drama about a 
young woman... who refuses to stay inside the house and do what is expected of 
her. She is prepared to do what is right rather than what is convenient or 



111 Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 1984), 8. 

112 Ibid., 9. 

46 



safe." 113 Does this not describe Perpetua? Was she led to her dreams and to 
her actions by Greek drama? It is doubtful. 

Some scholars with classical interests have avoided the pitfalls of 
searching for classical literary influences on the Passio and concentrate instead 
on the Roman and North African figures whose lives intersect with Perpetua's. 
In these cases the analysis is not directed at the dreams themselves but at the 
outside circumstances which led Perpetua to imprisonment and martyrdom. 
Andrzej Wypustek presents an argument which focuses on Septimius Severus, 
who ruled the Roman Empire at the turn of the second century. Wypustek, 
reviewing the legislation of the time, finds that Septimius Severus was 
particularly harsh in dealing with "magicians, astrologers and prophetic 
dreams." 114 Christian behavior that involved reliance on dreams and dream 
interpretation might well have been considered "potentially dangerous magic" 
by the Severan administration, just as extended Christian prayer was deemed 
to be a form of magical incantation and damaging both to the individual and to 
the state. 115 The Roman distaste for and fear of magic was justification enough 
for the punishment of Christians. The argument is that Christians were 
persecuted not so much for their theology but because they were thought to 
practice dangerous and illegal magic. When Perpetua, in her first dream, 
approaches the dragon and utters the words "in nomine lesu Christi" (Pass. 4: 
6), it is possible that the phrase would have been interpreted by a pagan as a 
magical incantation. Wypustek explains that "In Pagan opinion Christians 
seemed to use the name of Christ or other Christian signs and symbols, e.g. 



113 Mary R. Lefkowitz, "The Price of Honor," A. R. T. News 22 (November 2000): 2. 

114 Andrzej Wypustek, "Magic, Montanism, Perpetua, and the Severan Persecution," Vigiliae 



Christianae 51 (1997): 276. 
115 Ibid., 283. 

47 



relics, for magical purposes like exorcisms, healing, divination and magical 
protection." 116 The thrust of Wypustek's thesis is that (i) Perpetua's dreams 
suggested she was using magic, (ii) magic was inimical to the Romans, (iii) 
therefore Perpetua was punished severely because of her dreams. This is an 
interesting approach but Wypustek does not explain how the Roman officials 
discovered the details of Perpetua's dreams. We know that she recounted them 
to her Christian companions, but would they have repeated these potentially 
incriminating dream elements to their jailers or judges? Further, Perpetua was 
already in prison and at least on the path to sentencing when she had her 
dreams, making the argument that the dreams were responsible for her death 
sentence somewhat labored. 

An additional idea put forth by Wypustek is worth considering. He 
reasons that Perpetua's conduct toward her father was so unusual that "One is 
inclined to assume that in his view Perpetua would be acting as a person 
hypnotized by magical incantations." 117 That is, if no "normal" young woman 
would have acted toward her father as Perpetua did, then Perpetua must have 
been under a spell. If we extend this thought to its ultimate conclusion, the 
result is a Perpetua who may not have been a voluntary Christian convert at all 
but a young pagan woman who had been hypnotized or entranced by the mind 
control techniques of a Christian cult. If we read Perpetua's dreams in this sort 
of pagan context, they become verification of Christian magic at work. 

Like Wypustek, James Rives is interested in exploring why Perpetua was 
treated as harshly as she was. He reminds us that "most scholars have 
abandoned the idea that there was at this time a general persecution [of 



116 Ibid., 282. 

117 Ibid., 284. 



48 



Christians] resulting from an imperial edict." 118 He proposes that if there were 
no empire-wide policy toward Christians, it was probable that local 
administrators, such as the procurator Hilarianus, were the decision makers 
regarding the toleration or prohibition of religions. The procurator "exercised 
considerable discretion not only in fixing penalties but also in recognizing 
charges" against Christians. 119 Therefore, it was not at all inevitable that 
Perpetua be executed, or for that matter punished at all. Rives notes that she 
was a Roman citizen and "in all likelihood a member of the decurial class." 120 
Her citizenship and status would normally be counted as points in her favor. 
Her father's position and the fact that she was a young mother who had just 
given birth would also have been to her advantage when she was arrested and 
later appeared to face charges. Why was she then punished so harshly? Rives 
concludes that "Hilarianus' treatment of Perpetua was more severe than it 
needed to have been, and it is difficult not to think that this severity was to some 
extent the result of his personal convictions." 121 Rives speculates that it was 
Hilarianus' own religious beliefs that motivated him and that his sharply 
conservative views pushed him toward condemning Perpetua to death in the 
amphitheater. 

What were the views that Hilarianus espoused? Rives believes that they 
included the certitude that there were acceptable and unacceptable deities. 
Hilarianus' attitude toward religion ran counter to the inclusivist position of most 
Roman officials. In Perpetua's case, Hilarianus was not acting "simply as a 



118 James Rives, "The Piety of a Persecutor," Journal of Early Christian Studies 4 (Spring 1996): 
19. 

119 Ibid., 20. 

120 Ibid., 22. 

121 Ibid., 23. 

49 



functionary of the imperial government, but as a man intellectually and perhaps 
emotionally involved with the issues at hand." 122 Rives admits his arguments 
are uncertain. His conclusions regarding Hilarianus' religious beliefs are based 
on identifying the Hilarianus of the Perpetua story with a P. Aelius Hilarianus 
who was a procurator in Spain and for whom we have altar inscriptions 
suggesting exclusivist beliefs. Probing these inscriptions is a job for specialists 
and it is not the purpose of this thesis to accept or reject Rives' identification of 
the Carthage Hilarianus with the Spanish procurator. However, it is instructive 
to see how one can interpret the story as being not so much about Perpetua as 
about Hilarianus. Perhaps it is the ultimate interpretation or non-interpretation 
of Perpetua's dreams in that it declares them to be not particularly relevant. 
What counts for Rives is not Perpetua herself but how Perpetua's execution 
reveals something about pagan Roman religious differences. Where might 
such an approach lead? If someone other than Hilarianus had been procurator 
in Carthage in 203, someone with broader, more liberal religious tendencies, 
we might not have had an imprisoned Perpetua, we might not have had any 
dreams, and we might not have had our story. 

Theological, Patristic and Church Historical 
According to modern interpreters in the fields of Christian theology, 
patristics and church history, Perpetua's dreams have their roots neither in 
pagan culture nor in classical literature. The dreams, in Salisbury's view, were 
"about salvation... about fear and about the strength of the community." 123 
Interpreters such as Salisbury see Christian dream symbols where Artemidorus 



122 Ibid., 17. 

123 Salisbury, 100. 

50 



saw images from the Greco-Roman world. If we review examples similar to 
those discussed in the section on Artemidorus from the standpoint of one intent 
on finding Christian symbols, we discover quite different meanings. The ladder 
represents the transition from earthly to heavenly life recalling, as Salisbury 
notes, the Genesis account of Jacob's ladder. 124 Robeck adds that "the ladder 
could also be described as a symbol of the Christian life itself." 125 He further 
hypothesizes that there could be a parallel between the narrowness of the 
ladder and the "narrow gate of which Jesus spoke." 126 The weapons, again 
borrowing from Salisbury, are made of harder metal than the ladder and thus 
indicate Perpetua's fear that even as a martyr she might not experience 
salvation. Or, as Robeck feels, the weapons may be symbols of the difficulties 
of and challenges to leading a Christian life. 127 The dragon or serpent may 
stand for the devil and is another reference to Genesis (at 3:15, where God puts 
enmity between the serpent and woman) and also to Rev. 20:2. Another 
possibility is that the serpent represents the Antichrist. The garden may be a 
reference to heaven as depicted in the Apocalypse of St. Peter. 128 The 
shepherd is thought by some interpreters to represent Christ, the Good 
Shepherd (see John 10:1 1 , 14). Salisbury comments that the shepherd is also 
a "welcoming guide to the dreamer [as] in the Shepherd of Hermas."' 29 The 
white clothes may refer to a vision in Revelation 130 as well as to a scene from 
Daniel 7:9-1 0. 131 The milk (in some translations, cheese) stands for the 



124 Ibid. 

125 Robeck, 27. 

126 Ibid., 28. 

127 Ibid., 29. 

128 Salisbury, 102. 

129 Ibid. 

130 Ibid., 103. 

131 



Robeck, 30. 

51 



Eucharist as, according to Salisbury, "Carthaginian Christians ate milk and 
cheese along with the bread and wine of Holy Communion." 132 Robeck notes 
that references to both milk and cheese occur throughout the Hebrew Bible and 
that milk, when combined with honey, could refer to the Promised Land. 133 So, 
applying these symbols quite faithfully as we did with Artemidorus, we have a 
Perpetua who, having survived the challenges of the Christian life, overcomes 
the devil and is destined for heaven and a meeting with Christ in the Promised 
Land. 

Read critically, this somewhat simplistic view assumes that almost every 
dream image must have a Christian symbolic equivalent. There is little room for 
nuance; a stands for b, c stands for d and so forth. The reader is asked to 
engage the text as one would decode a message written in cipher; all that is 
needed is the code book. Such an interpretation does have the merit of 
avoiding "elaborate theological doctrines" and not imposing upon a twenty-two 
year old convert "a high level of theological sophistication." 134 However, it is an 
interpretation that seems to deny Perpetua any originality and turns the artistry 
of her dream into a cookie cutter assemblage of symbols. It forces Perpetua into 
a mold and does not permit her to express herself. It superimposes the 
orthodoxy of Christian symbols on what is an extremely unorthodox vision. 
There is a presumption that nothing in the dream can stand on its own, that 
there is no plain sense in the text, that everything has a secondary, symbolic 
meaning replete with Christian overtones and references. 

One may argue that an interpretation based on the unraveling of 

132 Ibid., 103. 

133 Robeck, 37. 

134 Ibid., 55. 

52 



Christian symbols assumes that Perpetua was familiar enough with several 
books of the Bible and apocrypha to incorporate symbols from them into a 
dream. This may be a defensible assumption as she is depicted as an 
intelligent and highly motivated young woman, in close contact with the local 
Christian community. And she need not have read the texts in which the 
symbols had their source; she could have heard about them from the 
community and she could have observed their use in liturgy. But one does 
wonder whether any catechumen, even a "quick study" in her early twenties, 
would have had time for such an exposure. The conversations between 
Perpetua and her father, who is still trying to persuade her to say she is not a 
Christian, may be read as implying that she had not been a Christian for very 
long. A further critique of the Christian interpretation is that it seems to require 
every image in a dream to have an unvarying symbolic equivalent. Artemidorus 
resisted the temptation of assigning a dream symbol a single, permanent 
meaning, stressing "the necessity... of knowing the dreamer's identity, 
occupation, birth, financial status, state of health, and age." 135 Interpreters who 
focus on Christian symbolism appear to suggest that a serpent is always the 
devil and a ladder is always the pathway to heaven. We can surmise that 
whoever controls the definition of the symbols controls the text. 

Rebecca Lyman is more circumspect in her analysis of Christian symbols 
in Perpetua's dreams. 136 She notes that in the first dream, in which Perpetua 
climbs a ladder and meets a shepherd figure, it is not a symbol that protects 
Perpetua as she deals with the "swords, spears, hooks, daggers and spikes" 



135 Artemidorus, 8. 

136 Rebecca Lyman, "Perpetua: A Christian Quest For Self, Journal of Women and Religion 8 
(Winter 1989): 26-31. 

53 



{Pass. 4.3) that are attached to the ladder and overcomes the serpent which lay 
beneath it. Rather, she gains "safety in the name of Christ Jesus" and recreates 
"the victory of the Second Eve" by crushing the serpent underfoot. 137 This 
approach holds that it is Perpetua's real actions, calling aloud on Christ for help 
and physically overpowering the serpent, that win the day. The dream is read 
less as a catalog of symbols and more as an instructive story from which we all 
might learn. Similarly, Lyman does not necessarily see the grey-haired man as 
a symbol for God the Father as other interpreters have been wont to do. 
Although the shepherd figure refers to Perpetua as "my child," (Pass. 4. 9) she 
never refers to him as Father as she might if he were indeed a God symbol. 
Lyman sees this episode as suggestive of reward and welcome. The offering of 
milk (or cheese) is not symbolic of either the Eucharist or baptism but is an 
image of comfort. Just as Perpetua the mother comforted her child by nursing it, 
the shepherd comforts Perpetua with a restorative gift of milk. The "Amen" that 
concludes this section hints that the dream may be taking place in a church 
setting and that Perpetua gains succor not only from the shepherd but also from 
a congregation of coreligionists. And is Perpetua's calmness in the face of 
learning that "we would no longer have any hope in this life" {Pass. 4.10) a 
result of her confidence in the life to come? 

Lyman also argues that attempts to see Christian symbolism in the dream 
of the fight in the arena are misplaced. She finds instead that "the detail is all 
too realistic to ancient games" and that Perpetua's defeat of the Egyptian is not 
to be interpreted symbolically as "a defeat of paganism" but as an illustration of 
her own strength and insight. 138 Again we are led to an interpretation which 

137 Ibid., 28. 

138 Ibid., 30. 

54 



teaches us from realistic example rather than from conjectural symbol. 

Alvyn Pettersen offers another analysis of Perpetua's dreams, one which 
sees "a spirituality dependent upon the imitatio Christi"' 39 For Pettersen, the 
dreams are filled with images and symbols which illustrate Perpetua's 
closeness to God and willing acceptance of a life which follows Christ's. He 
interprets the vision of Perpetua's fight with the Egyptian as an identification 
with Christ, suggesting that her "striking the Egyptian in the face with her heels 
points beyond a pancratium with an Egyptian to the Christologically interpreted 
text of Genesis 3.15." 140 Perpetua's dream proclamation that she is proceeding 
"in nomine lesu Christi" {Pass. 4. 6) is taken to mean that she will live a 
Christlike life in both sleeping and waking states and that her martyr's death in 
the amphitheater will imitate Christ's death on the cross. The gray haired man 
dressed as a shepherd who welcomes Perpetua as a teknon (Pass. 4. 9) is 
taken to be the heavenly father who, in welcoming Perpetua with this term, 
acknowledges her as a disciple and "the spiritual offspring of the exemplar." 141 
The reader is thus encouraged to see Perpetua as returning to her heavenly 
father (as opposed to her biological father) much as Christ did, and being 
recognized as his offspring. 

As we might expect, Pettersen finds Perpetua's visionary trials and 
emotional tribulations as, like Christ's, "means of progress and purification." 142 
Her stepping on the dragon's head and climbing a ladder are referents to the 
renunciation of the devil and to the start of her pilgrimage to God. Her rubdown 



139 Alvyn Pettersen, "Perpetua-Prisoner of Conscience," Vigiliae Christianae 41 (June 1987): 
140. 



140 Ibid. 

141 Ibid., 144. 



142 Ibid., 145. 

55 



with oil before the battle with the Egyptian is a reference "to the practice of the 

anointing of the newly Baptized" and the kiss from her trainer after her victory 

serves to "recall the Eucharistic pax." 143 Perpetua's dreams in Pettersen's view 

are neither nightmares nor dreams of terror. They are dreams of hope, a hope 

which 

had realized itself in the obedient self sacrifice of the Christ, and 
repeatedly realized itself, both individually and corporately, in the 
transfiguration of mankind into the image and likeness of that 
same servant, obedient unto death. 144 

Thomas J. Heffernan is also of the imitatio Christi school. Although his 
focus is more on Felicity than on Perpetua, he concludes that Perpetua's 
dreams are "mimetic; they constitute an imitatio Christ?' and that "Perpetua's 
choice of words to describe her memory of the dreams must be deliberate, 
consonant with this intention." 145 Heffernan thinks that since Perpetua asked the 
deity for her dreams, they should not be read as other dreams might, "the 
products of an associative frame, free from a discernible teleology." 146 Rather, 
the dreams are sent by God to enable Perpetua to "locate her event within some 
larger absolute frame." 147 

What can we say about the Pettersen and Heffernan readings? Do they 
impute to Perpetua a sophisticated Christology which may have been beyond 
her intellectual grasp and which she may not have professed? Does it remove 
some of the spontaneity and excitement from her dream world and substitute a 
heavy handed premeditativeness? As a young cathecuman, how far would 



143 Ibid., 148. 

144 Ibid., 149. 



145 Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages 
(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 203. 

146 Ibid., 204. 

147 Ibid., 205. 

56 



Perpetua have progressed toward a logically complete and philosophically 

resolved understanding of her faith? Perhaps Pettersen and Heffernan are 

reading into the text their own ideas and beliefs and smothering Perpetua's 

voice. 

As we have seen in the sections above, there are a variety of Christian 

interpretations, both ancient and modern, of Perpetua's dreams. In fact, it is the 

importance of the dreams to Christians that is clearly responsible for the 

preservation and popularization of her story. Without her dreams it is possible 

that Perpetua would have been just another unknown and unremembered 

martyr. While we know that Perpetua was a determined Christian, it may be 

instructive to ask what kind of a Christian she was. The term "Christian" 

encompassed a wide range of beliefs in the early third century, just as it does 

today. What sort of Christianity is reflected in Perpetua's dream world? Modern 

scholars have been dueling for some time now over whether or not the dreams 

and visions in the Passio suggest a Montanist viewpoint and whether or not 

Perpetua herself might have been a member of the New Prophecy movement. 

We know that Montanism, which began in Phrygia in Asia Minor around 170, 

had spread to North Africa by the time of Perpetua's adherence to Christianity. 

It is not the purpose of this paper to detail the history and tenets of Montanism, 

but a summary provided by Frederick Klawiter may be useful to place the 

discussion which follows in context. Klawiter writes that the movement's 

leaders were Montanus and two women, Priscilla and Maximilla. 
They claimed to have received the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues, 
enthusiastically witnessed to their faith... . Central to [the 
Montanist] message were the hope of the imminent end of the 
world, the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem and the duty of 
Christians to confess the name publicly in the midst of persecution. 

57 



...[W]hat has been called voluntary martyrdom was an important 
feature of the New Prophecy. 1 



148 



With this background in mind, let us review some of the scholarly arguments for 
and against a Montanist interpretation of Perpetua's dreams. 

Lisa M. Sullivan is among those who oppose a Montanist interpretation. 
She finds that "there is nothing specifically Montanist about the work as a 
whole" and reminds us that "It was not vision per se that characterized 
Montanism, but the immediate presence of the Paraclete in its prophets, a sort 
of 'possession' during which the spirit spoke directly through them." 149 In 
Sullivan's analysis, Perpetua was not possessed. Her dreams were vividly 
personal and in them she speaks for herself and not for the Paraclete. 
Perpetua's dreams reflect her own life experiences, her own dilemmas and her 
own family circumstances. Her dreams give no suggestion that she is a 
medium for another. Sullivan hints that if there is any Montanism in the Passio, 
it comes not from Perpetua but from the redactor, who "might have seen more in 
Perpetua's account than she herself did." 150 That is, Perpetua's dreams were 
not Montanist, but her editor might well have been. 

William C. Weinrich is another who doubts that Perpetua was a 
Montanist. He bases his argument on the premise that Perpetua's visions, 
rather than reflecting Montanist ideas, were rooted in a pagan culture which 
spoke to the special situation of those who died violently or before their time. 



151 



Robeck joins Weinrich in e mploying evidence outside of Perpetua's dream 

148 Klawiter, 251-3. 

149 Lisa M. Sullivan, '"I responded, "I will not..."': Christianity as Catalyst for Resistance in the Passio 
Perpetuae et Felicitatis," Semeia, 79 (1997): 65. 

150 Ibid. 

151 William C. Weinrich, Spirit and Martyrdom: A Study of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Contexts of 
Persecution and Martyrdom in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Washington DC: 
University Press of America, 1981), 227. 

58 



world, such as the fact that Tertullian "never mentioned Perpetua as a member 
of the New Prophecy, even when it would have been appropriate and useful for 
him to do," to contend that she and the other martyrs were "orthodox, Catholic 
Christians." 152 

Aligned against those who are suspicious of Montanist interpretations, 
Kenneth B. Steinhauser is unequivocal in his conviction that the Passio "is 
clearly a Montanist document" and that "Visions, exhibiting Montanist images, 
abound." 153 Among the images he cites is the dream in which Perpetua is given 
milk (or cheese) by the shepherd (Pass. 4. 9). Steinhauser relates this practice 
to the Artotyrians, with whom the Montanists were identified. He also connects 
the dream in which Perpetua becomes male (Pass. 10. 7) with the Montanist 
principle that women and men could have equal authority in a Christian 
community. Finally, he observes that the thrust of the dream narratives is the 
glorification of martyrdom, a posture central to Montanism. 

Timothy Barnes is just as certain as Steinhauser that "the theological 
character of the Passion is Montanist through and through." 154 As justification for 
this view, he cites the use of scriptural passages in the Passio that were 
commonly employed by the Montanists, Perpetua's dream of Dinocrates, and 
her almost cheerful willingness to die. 155 Andrzej Wypustek agrees that the 
"Pneumatic inspiration, mediumistic enhancements and prophetic trances" 
which were a part of Montanism were also present in Perpetua's group of 
imprisoned Christians. But does the presence of an active visionary life and a 



152 Robeck, 16; Weinrich, 228. 

153 Kenneth B. Steinhauser, "Augustine's Reading of the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et 
Felicitatis," Studia Patristica 33 (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1997), 244. 

164 Timothy D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 

77. 

155 Ibid., and 78. 

59 



belief in dreams necessarily equate with the presence of Montanism? Certainly 
we have seen that dreaming and the belief in the importance of dreams were as 
prevalent in the pre-Christian world and in normative Christianity as they were 
in Montanism. The sole fact that Perpetua lived in an environment which valued 
visions does not seem conclusive enough to make her a Montanist. But 
Wypustek is not alone in his insistence that the dreams are circumstantial 
evidence of Montanism. 

Klawiter is another scholar who is convinced that Perpetua's dreams 
indicate her adherence to Montanist doctrine. His reading of the Passio leads 
him to conclude that "Without a doubt the document was authored by a member 
of the New Prophecy, and Perpetua and Saturus stand forth as noble martyrs in 
that movement." 156 He buttresses his case with examples from Perpetua's 
dreams. In the first dream, after Perpetua describes the ladder, she reports that 
"Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own 
accord." (Pass. 4. 5) Klawiter interprets Saturus's willing surrender as 
demonstrating that he was a voluntary martyr and implies that as such he must 
have been a Montanist. The unstated logical extension of this line of thought is 
that since Saturus was a Montanist, Perpetua must have been one too. But did 
Montanists have a monopoly on voluntary martyrdom? And is that term an 
accurate description of Saturus's behavior? The text says only that Saturus 
gave himself up, not that he actively sought martyrdom. One can imagine other 
possibilities for his actions, including the notion that he might receive a lighter 
punishment (since a death sentence, as has been noted above, was not 
automatic and in fact was unusually harsh), the possibility that he was already 



156 Klawiter, 257. 

60 



implicated as a member of the Christian community or a natural desire on the 
part of a leader to protect his coreligionists. Klawiter seems to read more into 
the text than is actually there. He does, however, add the meaningful 
observation that at the time of Perpetua's martyrdom, it is probable that the New 
Prophecy "had not yet been rejected by the Carthaginian catholic community." 157 
If this is true, it is possible to say that Perpetua may have shared Montanist 
beliefs without formally committing herself to the movement. That is, she may 
have been what we today might call "Montanist" without knowing it herself and 
without turning her back on the normative Christian church. The Montanist 
labeling seems to be a result of a modern desire to place early Christian 
religious thinking into neat categories when, in fact, such classifications did not 
exist in ancient times. We must remember that Perpetua herself said "I cannot 
be called anything other than what I am, a Christian" (Pass. 3. 2). She had, one 
suspects, much opportunity to say she was a follower of the New Prophecy or of 
Montanus; she never did. 

Feminist 

Perpetua's dreams have attracted comment from a number of feminist 

interpreters for reasons that are succinctly summarized by Daniel Hoffman: 

Perpetua is often described in modern studies on women as an 
example of a woman who defied the traditional standards and 
conventions of her day by standing up to her pagan father and the 
repressive male authorities; as one who symbolically transcended 
the expectations placed on the female sex by becoming a man (in 
one of her revelations) and by exhibiting extreme bravery in 
contests in the arena; as one who exercised leadership among 
Christians through her prophetic ability and charisma; and as one 



157 



Ibid. 



61 



who actually left her own record for women to lead and follow. 158 

Elizabeth Petroff is concerned with the style of Perpetua's dream record, 
arguing that its composition is consistent with the style of other women 
devotional writers and "may be characterized as emotional... repetitive, 
proverbial, nonanalytical; the language is concrete rather than abstract, 
subjective, timeless, ahistorical." 150 Without denying the importance of Petroff's 
work, one must view this as a rather strong statement, containing many 
generalizations, and it raises several questions. First, as discussed earlier, 
there is some degree of consensus that at least parts of Perpetua's story (the 
introduction, the conclusion) were redacted, perhaps by another woman but 
most probably by a man. The dream sequences may also have been edited or 
tampered with over the years. So we must ask whose style Petroff is looking at? 
Would an editor-male or female-have changed Perpetua's "feminine" style or 
sought to maintain it? Was Perpetua taught to write like a woman or is Petroff 
claiming that a feminine devotional style is inborn? Salisbury states that Roman 
fathers, rather than tutors or mothers, were involved in the education of their 
well-born daughters and that Perpetua's education (and thus writing style) was 
"under the absolute and affectionate guidance of her father." 160 Would he have 
been capable of teaching a feminine style? Second, Petroff's list of feminine 
characteristics seems arbitrary and undocumented. Are only women writers 
emotional or timeless? Certainly one can find male devotional writers who are 
repetitive (in fact, one might argue that repetition is a hallmark of much 

devotional writing), subjective and ahistorical. Science has not yet proven 

158 Daniel Hoffman, The Status of Women and Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Tertullian (Lewiston, NY: 
The Edward Mellen Press, 1995), 170. 
169 Petroff, 28. 
160 Salisbury, 7. 

62 



conclusively that gender determines literary style. Nor is it safe to say that one 
can accurately "sex" a text like a chicken. Third, should a dream record be 
categorized and analyzed as a literary document when, perhaps, it was not 
meant to be more than a hastily scribbled memory by a just awakened 
prisoner? One doubts that Perpetua would have had either the time or the 
inclination to worry about the niceties of composition or whether she was being 
"proverbial" or "ahistorical." There is a possibility that Petroff's own conception 
of what constitutes feminine style leads her to assign to Perpetua's dream diary 
stylistic qualities which it really does not have. Does Petroff demean Perpetua's 
narrative by terming it emotional and nonanalytical, or does she consider these 
to be positive qualities? Again, we learn more about the interpreter from this 
exercise than we do about Perpetua. 

Patricia Cox Miller attempts a very different feminist interpretation. Using 
"interpretive strategies taken from French feminist writers," she finds Perpetua's 
dreams "as both reflective and resistant to the sexual politics of her community, 
a community in which there was a power struggle that was engendered in male 
and female terms." 161 Miller begins by asserting that Perpetua lived in the 
context of a patriarchal society, but one which was experiencing some 
turbulence over the role of women in the church. For example, the Montanist 
movement was becoming influential in North Africa at the time and gave greater 
prominence to women than orthodoxy sanctioned. Miller reads Perpetua's 
dreams as emphasizing the triumph of women over men and as "a vision of a 
new empowered sense of self-identity that is 'other' to the constructs of the 
social order." 162 Dreams, especially prophetic dreams, allowed a woman to 



161 Miller, 166. 

162 Ibid., 181. 

63 












. 






express herself critically in a manner that would be unacceptable in waking life. 

Miller seeks to buttress her case for Perpetua's dreams as the "imaginal 

empowering of a woman's voice" 163 by citing thinkers such as Mikhail Bakhtin 

and claiming that the dreams reflect "carnivalesque" discourse. While it is quite 

possible to imagine a Perpetua who was intentionally or inadvertently involved 

in the sexual politics of the early church, it is more difficult to picture her 

weighing her dream descriptions so that they properly expressed the 

carnivalesque and the subversive "other". Miller and the authors she cites 

forget Perpetua the real person with real dreams in their eagerness to justify 

and confirm their theories. 

David Scholer is also prepared to link Perpetua to the idea of sexual 

politics. He traces the trajectory of Perpetua's feminist development from her 

anxiety over caring for her newborn baby to her confidence that her baby is fine 

without her, claiming that 

In some sense she has left behind the traditional limiting role of 
motherhood, which in that culture would never give a woman an 
opportunity to be an empowered leader. She now has 
transcended her traditional female sexual role and is now able to 
play the role of an empowered martyred leader in the church. 164 

Scholer finds Perpetua's statement "and suddenly I was a man," {Pass. 10. 7) 
which we have discussed earlier, as supporting his contention that Perpetua 
had found a new political identity in prison, one which allowed her to rise above 
the subordinate position that women occupied in ancient times to become an 
authority to whom others looked for guidance. He reads the passage 
figuratively, not literally, noting that "Because of the patriarchalism and 

163 Ibid., 183. 
l64 Scholer,11. 

64 



androcentrism in those cultures, often when women are described as 
empowered persons, especially in Jewish or Christian traditions, they are 
described as taking on the characteristics of a man." 165 He backs this 
conclusion with citations from IV Maccabees, Joseph and Asenath, the Gospel 
of Thomas, and The Acts of Paul and Thecla in which women assume a 
masculine attribute. 

Is a Perpetua who sheds her female characteristics in order to become a 
leader a positive role model for contemporary women? Scholer raises this 
question and presents a summary argument for each side of the debate. He 
observes that some scholars, such as Sara Maitland, see Perpetua's 
transformation into a man-whether literal or figurative--as a capitulation and a 
surrender to sexism and misogyny which make her an unsuitable hero for 
modern feminist women. 166 On the other hand, he finds other scholars (such as 
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ross Kraemer and Virginia Burrus) who are 
prepared to hail Perpetua as a positive example and who find the "I was a man" 
phrase little more than a cultural usage, a conventional expression of the time. 

Without taking sides in this debate, one wonders whether both camps 
have missed a major point. That is, Perpetua's female-male transformation (if 
indeed it was that) occurred in a dream setting and not in the real, waking world. 
This distinguishes it from Scholer's other examples of female-male motifs in 
Jewish and early Christian literature. Perpetua remained very much a woman 
in her fully conscious state. Should she be held accountable for her dream 
images? Can one be a politically correct feminist in the real world and still 

harbor politically incorrect dreams at night? Is it possible that in a world 

165 Ibid., 12. 

166 Ibid., 14. 

65 



permeated by gender issues we are making too much of this particular 
representation in Perpetua's dream life? 

Kate Cooper reminds us of another aspect of Perpetua's sexual 
transformation, the fact that it may be viewed as pornographic and titillating. 
She observes that the Perpetua text assumes a male readership and that "a 
woman, reading such texts, would be drawn into imagining herself as a male 
reader in order to accept the proposed objectification of women and/or the 
erasure of their femininity." 167 Certainly, the amphitheater dream scene (Pass. 
10:1-15) has elements which, at least through modern eyes, border on the 
sexually explicit. The Egyptian is "vicious," Perpetua's seconds and assistants 
are "handsome young men," her clothes are "stripped off," she is rubbed down 
with oil. Cooper hints that the author of the Passio was aware of the literary 
impact of this sort of writing and endeavored to "offer a niche where the reader 
can find his or her own implied presence as a partaker in the spectacle." 168 How 
common were dreams such as this one of Perpetua's in ancient times? How 
frequently were dreams with possible sexual content used to make political 
statements? Perhaps we should turn back to Artemidorus for help. 

Gillian Cloke examines the feminist aspects of Perpetua's story from 
another standpoint, that of family values. She notes that Christianity "had a 
pronounced effect of setting its adherents-and particularly women-against 
traditional Roman concepts of... pietas: of conscious devotion to the 'family as 
entity'." 169 Perpetua's behavior, in both everyday and visionary states, evinced 
a rejection of her role as a proper Roman woman. She could be seen as 



167 Cooper, 155-6. 

168 Ibid., 155. 



169 Gillian Cloke, ''Mater or Martyr: Christianity and the Alienation of Women Within the Family in the 
Later Roman Empire," Theology and Sexuality 5 (September 1996): 37. 

66 



disobeying her father, abandoning her child, ignoring the very existence of her 
husband, if indeed she had one. Cloke astutely observes that "anti-familial 
feeling is not an accusation hurled at the male martyrs and confessors," but was 
often serious consideration for women martyrs. 170 Women's additional family 
burden made it all the more striking when they rose above it, as did Perpetua. 
As Cloke puts it, "the more violent the struggle with the forces of convention, the 
greater was the victory." 171 Perpetua's triumphs in her dreams pointed the way 
for other women to follow. 

Freudian and Jungian 

In his classic work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud writes 
that "All material making up the content of a dream is in some way derived from 
experience." 172 An understanding of this experiential material, however, is not 
an easy task and, for Freudians, requires professional assistance. The 
discovery of what experiences are referenced and why is made difficult 
because, according to Freud, the manifest or surface content of the dream 
shields its latent or real content. To find the true meaning of a dream requires 
an extended analysis in which both psychoanalyst and analysand participate. 
Together they probe the secret or unconscious meaning of the dream and the 
wish fulfillment and repressed sexual impulses which it disguises. 

Freud's disciples expanded his work on dreams to the point where 
psychoanalysis became an all encompassing doctrine which could be seen, in 



170 Ibid., 47 

171 Ibid., 54 

172 



Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York: Avon 
Books, 1965), 44. 

67 



"173 



Clayton Crockett's words, "as a reductive theory that subsumes all others.' 
For orthodox Freudians, Crockett continues, "religious feeling is an illusion that 
becomes a collective delusion when humans objectify and worship the source 
of this feeling." 174 It is not surprising, then, that Freudian interpretations of 
Perpetua's dreams conclude that they are neither communications from a deity 
nor a means of predicting the future. Freudian interpreters of Perpetua's 
dreams begin with the conviction that "dreams feed not on prophecy but on 
remembrance" and that "the semiological vector points not to the future but to 
the past." 175 Most of the interpretations we have considered thus far look at 
Perpetua's dreams as forecasts, as explanations of what is to come, or as 
messages from God. For the Freudian psychoanalyst, dreams are not 
revelatory of God's will but intimations of a hidden, authentic personal history. 
While this would seem to place Christian and Freudian interpreters at opposite 
poles, both rely heavily on solving the puzzle of a dream's symbolic meanings. 
Christians and Freudians alike strive to uncover the dream's secrets by 
unraveling its symbolic associations. Each, however, employs a different 
cryptographic methodology. 

Robert Rousselle is a practitioner of what is perhaps an extreme version 
of the Freudian approach. He treats Perpetua's dreams as if they were the 
dreams of a patient undergoing therapy and concludes that "a psychoanalysis 
of her dreams shows Perpetua to be a deeply troubled, neurotic young 
woman." 176 Rousselle finds recurring elements in Perpetua's dreams which 



173 Clayton Crockett, "On Sublimation: The Significance of Psychoanalysis for the Study of 
Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68 (December 2000): 839. 

174 Ibid. 

175 George Steiner, "The Historicity of Dreams," Salmagundi 61 (Fall 1983): 12. 

176 Robert Rousselle, "The Dreams of Vibia Perpetua: 'Analysis of a Female Christian Martyr'," The 
Journal of Psychohistory 14 (Winter 1987): 204. 

68 



point to either actual or unconscious rape and incest; or at least what Lefkowitz 
refers to as "a close emotional pairing of father and daughter." 177 Let us 
examine a few of Rousselle's interpretations. The serpent at the foot of the 
ladder and the weapons on it in dream one stand for the phallus. Climbing the 
ladder with its "rhythmic movements and increasing breathlessness" parallels 
coitus. 178 The gray haired shepherd who offers Perpetua cheese is none other 
than Perpetua's father offering her his semen. Finally, the transformation of 
Perpetua from woman to man in dream four is explained as "rape by a divine 
father-figure [which] leads to the fantasy that the woman has been compensated 
by receiving a phallus and becoming a man and, in fact, is placed in a position 
of near equality to the father figure." 179 In the Freudian world, Perpetua's 
dreams are disguised pictures of her intercourse with her father. Perpetua's 
rejection of her father and her readiness to be martyred can now be seen as 
logically proceeding from her guilt. "In patriarchal society," Lefkowitz tells us, 
"the guilt for an incestuous relationship is (remarkably) felt only by the younger, 
passive partner." 180 

We have come quite a distance, it seems, from the symbolic readings of 
Artemidorus and the Christian dream analysts. But to the skeptical reader the 
interpretive burden on the analyst remains the same: Where is the evidence 
that would lend support to any of Rousselle's claims? Perpetua was never his 
analysand. She herself never related her dreams to him, nor did she engage in 
the self examination that is vital to successful Freudian psychotherapy. Freud 
sought to be accepted as a scientist, one whose conclusions were based on 



177 Lefkowitz, "Motivations," 420. 

178 Rousselle, 195. 

179 Ibid., 202. 

160 Lefkowitz, "Motivations," 420. 

69 



experimentation and real life experiences with his patients. Psychohistory of 
the sort Rousselle embraces lacks this discipline and interaction. Here we have 
Rousselle telling us what Perpetua's dreams meant; in standard psychoanalysis 
it is the patient who makes this discovery. Freud believed that certain symbols 
were universal, but how can we be sure that the symbols of third century 
Carthage have the same valence as those of turn-of-the-century Vienna? To 
say that a serpent is a phallus does not make it one. As Freud himself 
reportedly commented, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. What we have once 
more is the seemingly irresistible desire to apply a limited theory to a situation 
for which it was never meant. 

C. G. Jung accepted Freud's observations regarding the importance of 
dream interpretation to psychotherapy, maintaining that the dream "is an 
autonomous and meaningful product of psychic activity, susceptible like all 
other psychic functions, of a systematic analysis." 181 However he developed his 
own approach to exploring a dream's meaning. Jung held that dream symbols 
were not unconscious distortions of sexual impulses as Freud believed, but 
metaphors for universal forms or archetypes: Dreams were illustrations of the 
collective unconscious. Jung gave names to these forms-the shadow, the 
animus, the anima-but warned that all dream symbols must be read in context 
and that the recognition of the meaning of a dream symbol "is a specific 
experience that seems to be reserved mostly, or at any rate primarily, for 
psychotherapists." 182 In other words, dream interpretation was to be reserved to 
an elite which had its own special language and rules and held the power to 



181 C.G. Jung, Dreams, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 3. 

162 C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Bolligen Series 20, vol 9, 

pt. 2, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959), 267. 

70 



give proper meaning to the dream. Jung also believed that dreams 
compensated for waking attitudes. That is, dream images of oneself and one's 
attitudes were often reversals, the opposite of the waking self's conduct. As 
James A. Hall explains, "If for example, one is excessively polite and 
subordinate in conscious relationships, a dream might compensate by showing 
one to be overbearing and aggressive." 183 Did Perpetua's dreams compensate 
for her quotidian behavior? Was the real life Perpetua the opposite of the 
Perpetua of the Passio's dreams? 

M.L. von Franz, a leading Jungian analyst, has attempted to apply Jung's 
principles to Perpetua's dreams. Von Franz, dealing with the four dream 
sequences in their entirety, sees in Perpetua's father not a rapist (as did 
Rousselle) but the "embodiment of the animus" who "determines her spiritual 
temperament." 184 Perpetua's becoming a man is therefore not phallic but a 
representation of her individuation, her maturation into a fully realized person. 
Von Franz finds as many Jungian symbols as Rousselle finds Freudian. The 
ladder represents the way to a higher consciousness, "an individual path which 
must ultimately be trodden without the help of another." 185 The dragon is an 
unconscious nature spirit. The shepherd is the logos, "a symbol of the ordering 
mind of God which pervades the universe." 186 And as a coup de grace, the 
arena in which Perpetua is martyred is a mandala, "a symbol of the Self which 
embraces the conscious and unconscious sides of the personality in a 
totality." 187 Was Perpetua ever conscious of the archetypal nature of her 



183 James A. Hall, The Unconscious Christian: Images of God in Dreams (New York: Paulist Press, 
1993), 27. 

184 M.L. von Franz, "The 'Passio Perpetuae', "Spring (1949): 115. 

185 Ibid. 

188 Ibid., 101. 
187 Ibid., 111. 

71 



dreams? Did the arena, for example, ever appear to be a mandala to the real 
Perpetua? Neither she nor the narrator mention it. Would von Franz's 
amphitheater-as-mandala interpretation be spoiled if the arena in Carthage 
were not round but elliptical? Contemporary archaeological work suggests an 
oval shape. 188 Would Perpetua, so dedicated a Christian that she would die for 
her faith rather than sacrifice to a pagan god, agree with the all inclusive 
universalism and pluralistic language of Jung? One doubts it. 

Yet scholars seem to find Jung, or at least von Franz, far more congenial 
than Freud or Rousselle. Mary Ann Rossi, for example, accepts without 
question the Jungian version of Perpetua's dreams. 189 Cecil Robeck appears to 
find that von Franz's work "does not seem to be too far from [the] allegorical 
format" of Augustine. 190 Do Jungian symbol interpretations seem any more 
plausible than Freudian ones? Or do students of religion prefer Jung to Freud 
because the former takes a "pro religion" stance while the latter is doggedly 
"anti"? The comments of Rossi and Robeck can be read as demonstrating a 
bias in favor of a psychology that accepts religion as an integral part of its 
underpinning. 

Post-Colonialist 
If it is possible to read Perpetua's story as a psychological case study, it 
may be equally conceivable to read it as making a political statement against 
colonial rule. Lisa Sullivan is one who finds Perpetua's dreams as expressing 

"North African resistance ag ainst the Roman political... order." 191 To understand 

188 Salisbury, 35. Salisbury reproduces Lisa Qualm's map of Roman Carthage, showing an oval 
arena. 

189 Rossi, 57-62. 

190 Robeck, 53. 

191 Sullivan, 63. 

72 



her claim, a brief summary of Carthage's Roman history may be helpful. 
Perpetua's Carthage was the result of a Roman colonization, beginning about 
40 BCE, of a largely uninhabited area which, in turn, followed the complete 
destruction of the original Carthage at the end of the Punic war. W. H. C. Frend 
writes that as cities developed, the differences between the native Berbers and 
the Roman colonizers faded, although they never disappeared. 192 J. B. Rives 
notes that while the Italian rulers first followed a lifestyle modeled after Roman 
practice, "over the course of the second century CE it apparently became 
prestigious for the elite, no matter what their background, to claim African 
origin." 193 There was an influx of native Africans, Punic was spoken, and even 
those of Italian stock gave African names to their children. 194 Thus, Perpetua 
would have been a product not only of Rome, but also of the particularly African 
environment that surrounded her. 

Sullivan begins her argument by proposing that "Among possible factors 
in the overwhelming acceptance of Christianity by the inhabitants of North Africa 
was an element of social protest in the rejection of an official Roman religion, 
seen by non-Romanized North Africans as representative of an oppressive 
political system." 195 What was this "oppressive political system"? Rome 
pressured its North African colonies to expand the production of olive oil and 
other crops in order to supply many of the colonizers' agricultural needs. As 
production increased, so did taxes and levies which served to exploit the 



192 For a thorough discussion of Roman and Berber elements in Carthage and North Africa, see 
W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1952; reissued 1985), 32-47. 

193 J.B. Rives, Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustine to Constantine (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1995), 162. 

194 Ibid. 

196 Sullivan, 67. 

73 



Carthaginians even further. Sullivan, following the work of Barbara Harlow, 
finds the Passio to be a kind of "resistance literature" in which the manipulation 
of the narrative's plot, character and setting subsequently reflect both the social 
structure of resistance movements themselves and the collective and popular 
needs to which they respond. 196 She cites Perpetua's dream of the contest with 
the Egyptian in the arena as evidence that the colonials were "defeating the 
Roman government at its own game." 197 The battle images in the dream can be 
read as "a clear case of the subjugated using the terms of the dominant to 
speak back to and resist dominance." 198 

How compelling is Sullivan's argument? On the surface, it is somewhat 
parallel to Frend's examination of Donatism "as a native nationalist movement 
with a soteriological background." 199 But Frend's conclusions are supported by 
far more facts than Sullivan's. First, there is no evidence in Perpetua's text that 
she thought of herself specifically as being an African as opposed to being a 
Roman. She defines herself as a woman, daughter, mother, friend, Christian, 
but never as a Berber, African, or colonial. Second, the dream narratives and 
the text which surrounds them offer ample opportunity for Perpetua to make a 
direct political statement, yet she does not. In other instances when she wanted 
to speak out-whether about Christianity, her father, her companions-she 
clearly did so; she was not bashful about expressing herself straightaway. Her 
silence on the subject of colonialism suggests it was not one of her particular 
interests. Third, viewing the Rome-Carthage relationship of 203 in terms of 
modern sociopolitical theory may play somewhat fast and loose with history. 

196 Ibid., 68. 

197 Ibid. 

198 Ibid., 69. 

199 Frend, xviii. 

74 



Economic and political colonialism as we know it today was alien to the third 
century. Finally, calling the Passio "resistance literature" must logically assume 
that there was an active anti-colonial political resistance movement of some sort 
on the part of the Carthaginians. Again, one searches the Perpetua text and 
related literature for signs of such a movement. Sullivan may have embraced a 
fashionable idea and attached it to a situation in which it has no real place. 

Neurophysiology 
As we have seen, most scholars in disciplines such as religion, the 
humanities and analytic psychology accept Perpetua's dreams as having some 
meaning, though they may disagree with vehemence over what that meaning is. 
J. Allan Hobson, a representative of the neurophysiological school of dream 
studies, would question whether there is any meaning at all in Perpetua's or 
anyone else's dreams. Hobson explains that in dream states there is a potent 
change in the chemistry of the brain, so that "memory, attention, orientation, self- 
reflective awareness, insight and judgment are all impaired." 200 Experiments 
show that chemicals thought to be crucial to memory, such as norepinephrine 
and serotonin, are significantly reduced during dreaming; this leads Hobson to 
conclude that dream events "are all, in essence, unwilled natural 
phenomena." 201 In this regard, Hobson is in agreement with Aristotle; both 
believe that dreams are a bodily function that is neither predictive of the future 
nor explanatory of the past. Relying on measurements of rapid eye movements 
(REM) during sleep, Hobson and other physiologists have proposed an 
"activation-synthesis" hypothesis of dreaming which finds that "the sensorimotor 



200 J. Allan Hobson, Consciousness (New York: Scientific American Library, 1999), 55. 

201 J. Allan Hobson, The Dreaming Brain (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 1 1 . 

75 



hallucinosis of the dream experience is the direct and necessary concomitant of 

the specific activation of sensorimotor brain circuits." 202 In perhaps less 

technical language, dreams appear to us to be unusual because 

the brain-mind knows what state it is in only from its context. 
Since most organized precepts derive from the waking state, the 
REM-sleep-activated brain-mind assumes it is awake despite the 
distinctly different organization of experience. In REM sleep, the 
brain has no choice but to interpret its internally generated signals 
in terms of its previous experience with the outside world. 
According to activation synthesis, the change in mode of 
information processing caused by an arrest in aminergic neuronal 
firing contributes to this loss of self-reference/ 



203 



Does this suggest that dreams are mere bodily mechanics? Hobson's 
answer is no. His conclusion is that because certain cells of the brain stem rest 
during REM sleep, others are "caused to fire in such a manner as to provide a 
program for the active maintenance of many brain circuits." 204 Thus, dreaming 
becomes a means of replenishment that helps both the learning and creative 
processes. In a flight of fancy that is welcome though quite surprising in a 
technical work, Hobson writes that "Each of us is a surrealist at night during his 
or her dreams; each is a Picasso, a Dali, a Fellini--the delightful and macabre 
mixed in full measure." 205 Perpetua's dreams, in a neurophysiologist's view, 
allowed her troubled mind to rest and provided a canvass for her creativity and 
imagination. 



Fiction 



202 Ibid., 210. 

203 Ibid., 212. 



204 Ibid., 298. 

205 Ibid., 296-7. 

76 



It is no wonder that writers of fiction have been drawn to the Perpetua 
narrative. It contains all those elements which make for a gripping, lively and 
inspirational story. There is a well-born young woman with ideas of her own, a 
traditionalist father, a band of committed Christians, a devoted servant, two 
infants, representatives of Roman authority and a climactic scene with 
gladiators, wild animals, and blood in the Carthage arena. Because the Passio 
is relatively brief and leaves much unsaid about Perpetua's life, creative writers 
have filled in the missing details with verve and imagination. Those writers who 
have based plays, novels and libretti on Perpetua cannot help infusing their 
work with the same sort of interpretive reflection and conjecture that we have 
observed in the scholarly literature. While they allow themselves far greater 
liberties with the text than do most scholars, and are somewhat more inventive, 
writers of fiction are also interpreters. Tracy's endorsement of a genuine 
pluralism of readings of a classic can be extended successfully to fiction. 206 The 
search for meaning and truth is as present in fiction as it is in factual writing. Let 
us consider a few examples. 

In 1747, Lorenzo di Brunassi, Duke of San Filippo, published a libretto 
based on the Passio. 207 Brunassi's work, set to music by Giacomo Sellitto, was 
performed in Naples between 1745 and 1747. The opera is notable for its 
invention of a husband for Perpetua. He is Adrasto, a Roman patrician and 
army captain, and is faithful to his young wife throughout her ordeal. In the final 
act he becomes a Christian himself, singing "se Cristian gia sono." 208 Other 
imaginative additions to the original Perpetua text include a pagan priest and 



206 See Chapter One. 

207 Lorenzo di Brunassi.S. Perpetua martire: tragedia (Naples: Presso Giovanni di Simone, 1747). 

208 Ibid., 88. 

77 



choruses of magistrates, Christians and pagans who echo the sentiments of the 
leading characters. Felicity is notably absent from the opera. Brunassi fills in 
the gaps of the Passio so that Eighteenth century family values are maintained. 
For Perpetua to be a heroine, she must have a husband; and for her husband to 
be acceptable, he must be a Christian. 

Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848), an English Unitarian who is perhaps 
best known for the composition of the words to the hymn, "Nearer, My God to 
Thee," was also the author of Vivia Perpetua, a dramatic poem in five acts, 
published in 1841. 209 In Adams' play, the story told in the Passio is helped 
along by the addition of new characters and the enhancement and expansion of 
the personalities of Perpetua, her father, Felicity and Saturus. The play begins 
as Barac, a negatively stereotyped Jewish merchant, discovers that Perpetua is 
a Christian catechumen and betrays her and her friends to the Roman 
procurator, Hilarianus. Hilarianus is under pressure from his superiors in Rome 
to do something about the local Christians and also to produce participants for a 
celebratory festival and games which are to take place in the amphitheater. 
Hilarianus is happy to arrest Perpetua because it will embarrass her father, 
Vivius, who is presented as some sort of political and economic rival to the 
Procurator. Perpetua's relationship with her father is somewhat less stormy 
than in the Passio, and it is her father who takes her son and spirits him away by 
sea to safety and a new life. In an inventive author's note which combines truth 
and fiction, Adams tells us that Perpetua's son, Thascius, "was made a 
proselyte to the Christian faith by Caecilius a presbyter, whose name he 
afterwards assumed. He was elected bishop of Carthage A.D. 249, and 



209 Sarah Flower Adams, Vivia Perpetua: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts (London: Charles Fox, 
1841). 

78 



suffered martyrdom by the sword A.D. 258. " 210 Thus we have the intriguing 

possibility that Perpetua was the mother of Cyprian! 

Adams does offer solutions to some of the mysteries of the Passio which 

have given pause to scholars restricted to factual investigation. The case of 

Perpetua's unmentioned husband is in point. In the play we find that Perpetua 

is not only a widow but also "wert the wife of one of noble blood." 211 Adams 

wants a Perpetua whose status is settled and whose high social class is 

confirmed not only by her father but also by her husband. Perpetua's 

conversion to Christianity comes not quietly after study at home or after 

instruction in a house church, but dramatically alone in the Temple of Jupiter 

Olympus where, at the altar of the god, she proclaims aloud, "I am no longer 

worshiper of thine!" and swears "That on thine altar set for evermore, A firm 

renouncing seal--l am a Christian!" 212 Anticipating the feminist interpretations 

which were to come well over a century later, Adams shows the reader that 

Perpetua's unladylike behavior causes as much concern as do her doctrinal 

beliefs. Statius, a noble Roman, comments 

Thus much I know of her, -that she hath stepp'd 

Out of the province that befits a woman, 

Whose duty is, to keep within the house; 

If maiden, subject to her father's will; 

If wife obedient to her husband's rule; If mother, careful only for her 

children;-- 
She hath forgot herself,--you must forget her. 



213 



Adams seems to be saying through Statius that, beyond her religious beliefs, it 
is Perpetua's refusal to conform to the patriarchal norm that really gets her into 



210 Ibid., 200. 

211 Ibid., 35. 

212 Ibid., 49-50. 

213 Ibid., 126. 

79 



trouble. 

One of Perpetua's longest speeches of the play comes in the final act 
when she recounts her dreams. While the dream sequences come early on in 
the Passio, Adams chooses to place them at the end of her play for dramatic 
effect. Interestingly, Adams has Perpetua interpret the dreams herself as she 
tells her fellow Christians about them. It is as if she is saying that there is no 
room for misinterpretation when the dreamer herself explains the meaning of 
her own dream symbols. The ladder is "a voice I needs must follow"; the garden 
is the "garden of the Lord! O Paradise!"; the shepherd is "God... who led his 
flocks"; the milk is a "sacrament of heaven." 214 And those dressed in white are 
Christians who are singing "Hallelujah! amen! for the Lord God Omnipotent 
reigneth." 215 Adams does not want to leave interpretive freedom to the reader; 
we are told what the dream signifies. 

To the modern reader, Vivia Perpetua seems a curiosity, as stilted and 
old-fashioned in its theology as it is in its language. The pseudo- 
Shakespearian dialogue falls flat and none of the characters seem to possess 
any real life on the page or, one imagines, on the stage. Early twentieth century 
critics have lamented "the artlessness of the construction and the 
conventionality of the stage accessories" and have found the play "but modestly 
interesting." 216 More recently, however, feminist readers have been kinder to 
Adams, commenting that the play "stresses that becoming a Christian under 
Roman patriarchal law was a defiant assertion of autonomy" and noting that in 
Vivia Perpetua "slaves and women share a closer experience than do men and 



214 Ibid., 159-61. 

215 Ibid., 161. 



216 The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, vol. 1 (Oxford: 
Oxford University Press, 1921-1922), 101. 

80 









. 



»217 



women of the same social standing. 

While Musurillo's translation of the entire Passio is complete in a 
compact thirteen pages, the French author Rene du Mesnil de Maricourt (1829- 
1893) has managed to write a 432 page novel based on Perpetua's life as he 
imagined it. Vivia Perpetua; or, The martyrs of Carthage 218 has as one of its 
principal characters Perpetua's invented (once again) husband, Marcus, a loyal 
Roman soldier who "when the evil tendencies of his nature... were stimulated by 
calumnies against the Christians. ..became a violent and bitter persecutor." 219 
When Perpetua, who in the novel is given a young daughter, Eva, becomes a 
Christian and is baptized, the stage is set for a confrontation not with her father 
(as in the Passio) but with Marcus. He leaves her when he discovers her 
conversion and she is banished with Eva to the desert, there to live among what 
de Maricourt describes as the half-savage tribes. Meanwhile, Marcus is 
befriended by a Christian priest, Zephyrinus, who explains to him that Christians 
"have ever shown themselves the most devoted subjects of the Emperor" 220 and 
that one can be both a good Roman and a good Christian. Convinced by this 
representation, Marcus rushes to the side of his wife and daughter in the desert, 
just in time to see little Eva die of an unknown illness. 

Perpetua and Marcus conceive another child, a son, and return with him 
to Carthage where they are all arrested and thrown into prison. Clearly, the 
Roman authorities had not been convinced that Zephyrinus' argument was 



217 The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the 
Present, ed. Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy (New Haven and London: Yale 
University Press, 1990), 9. 

218 Rene du Mesnil de Maricourt, Vivia Perpetua; or, The martyrs of Carthage, trans, from the 
second French edition (New York: P. O'Shea, 1873). 

219 Ibid., 12. 

220 Ibid., 297. 

81 



sound. Marcus is the first to be sentenced; he is judged as a soldier to have 
betrayed his trust and is condemned to die by the axe, his head severed neatly 
by a single blow. Presumably he is entitled to this swifter and kinder death 
because of his rank and his citizenship. Perpetua's execution is next and is a 
much slower and crueler affair, even though she too is a citizen and of good 
birth. Following the general outline of the Passio, she encounters a mad cow, 
undergoes several humiliations and dies guiding a gladiator's sword to her 
throat. In a final chapter, Perpetua's strength and faith are discussed and 
praised by survivors of the Carthage persecution who, for an unexplained 
reason, end up at the foot of Mt. Ararat. 

Like di Brunasi's libretto, de Maricourt's book creates for Perpetua a 
soldier husband who turns from his pagan ways and becomes a Christian, one 
suspects as much for love as for theological conviction. Other major liberties 
taken with the Passio include only passing mention of Felicity and no inclusion 
of dreams at all. There is an obvious effort to show that Christianity was 
compatible with Roman civil law and only those Romans who were brutish, 
dumb or both could not see this compatibility. Perpetua is portrayed as a 
bourgeois nineteenth century woman who seeks to reconcile her 
responsibilities as a daughter, wife and mother with her religious convictions 
and succeeds. Love, duty and faith are seen not as sources of conflict, as they 
are in the Passio, but as reconcilable elements in everyday life. Perpetua's 
martyrdom is relegated to the status of an unfortunate mistake on the part of 
some misinformed officials rather than as a dramatic testimony of a young 
woman's faith courage. 

Alex Miller, a contemporary Australian writer, uses the Perpetua story as 

82 



the chief motif of his novel, Conditions of Faith. 22 ' Set in Australia, France and 

Tunisia in the 1920s, the book portrays its heroine--a bright and attractive young 

Australian named Emily Stanton Elder--as facing many of the same dilemmas 

with which Perpetua grappled, such as parental obedience, faith, 

independence, motherhood, and nascent feminism. In the novel, Miller has 

Emily (i) marry a staid, hardworking engineer, (ii) leave Australia for France, 

where she has a brief sexual encounter with another man, (iii) visit Tunisia and 

the site of Perpetua's prison, where she is given a copy of the Passio, and (iv) 

decide that she must seek personal fulfillment even if it means abandoning her 

young child. 

Early on in the novel one of the characters asks rhetorically "why the 

word passion serves both for the torments of sexual desire and for the suffering 

of the martyrs." 222 Miller's answer, provided through Emily's voice, is that it is a 

somewhat mad search for the truth which links the two experiences. In her own 

search for the truth, Emily finds herself drawn to the story of Perpetua as she 

explores the ruins of ancient Carthage. In the company of a French priest, an 

American museum curator and a western-educated Arab nationalist, she 

confronts the differing explanations for Perpetua's imprisonment and death. 

Hakim, the Arab, explains to her that 

If you ask Delattre [the French priest], he'll tell you she was a 
martyr of the Holy Roman Church. The Christians claimed 
her and made a saint of her. But I say she was a misunderstood 
Berber woman and her life was a mystery. She was a young 
married woman from a respectable family and she waited for days 
in there to die in the arena and no one really knows why. 223 



221 Alex Miller, Conditions of Faith (New York: Scribner, 2000). 

222 Ibid., 93. 

223 Ibid., 148. 

83 












. 









Emily senses that the mystery of Perpetua's life might have relevance to her 

own, and she seeks to discover why Perpetua had her dreams, wrote her diary 

and why she gave herself up to the Romans. Hakim warns her not to trust the 

editor of the Passio, whom he accepts as Tertullian, musing that 

She must have given her diary to Tertullian for safekeeping, 
probably the night before she was killed. It's a murder mystery. 
The Romans murdered her. No one denies that. But why did she 
give up her baby and desert her family? What were her reai 
motives? Tertullian says she did it for the nonsense of eternal life. 
European historians have let Tertullian's explanation that she was 
a Christian martyr stand without ever questioning it. Her case has 
remained closed since Tertullian gave us his verdict. No one 
since then has asked what her real motives might have been 
in acting as she did. 



224 



Of course, the fictional Hakim (speaking, one presumes, for the author) may 
have been right about the paucity of clashing interpretations in the 1920s. But, 
as this thesis shows, how many questions since then have been asked about 
Perpetua's motives! 

Miller's characters continue their suspicions about Tertullian as the novel 
progresses. Emily and a friend theorize that given Perpetua's fluency of 
expression and skill as a writer, she must have written more than just the 
Passio, and that Tertullian may have suppressed whatever else she wrote for 
his own theological and political reasons. When Emily leaves Tunisia and 
returns to Paris, she visits the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve and immerses 
herself in Tertullian's works. She concludes that "it was not possible that this 
man could have been the confident and friend of any woman." 225 Tertullian, for 
Emily, distorts Perpetua's story in his eagerness to promote his own cause. 

224 Ibid., 156. 

225 Ibid., 194. 

84 



Whether Miller himself shares all of his protagonist's views is uncertain, but it is 

clear that his sympathies lie with her. 

The novel approaches its denouement with Emily researching and 

writing her own scholarly book, The Secular Perpetua, in which she maintains 

that it was not Perpetua's death that was her supreme sacrifice, but the passing 

of her son "through the bars of her cell to her father, knowing that she was never 

to see the child again." 226 As Emily becomes stronger in her will to become her 

own person, she finds herself making a sacrifice that imitates Perpetua's: 

One goes by small degrees, one step at a time, until one stands at 
last on the place from which one refuses to be moved. And one is 
more astonished than anyone to see it is oneself who does this. 
This was Perpetua's gift to me. ...It is why Tertullian, and those 
who followed him, required her silence. What she did could never 
be acknowledged. For she broke the chain by which mothers are 
compelled. 



227 



Miller's Perpetua and Miller's Emily are feminists before their times. They face 
the tension which exists between a woman's assigned role as daughter-wife- 
mother and her assumed role as an independent being capable of making 
existential choices. 

While Conditions of Faith and the other three works we have considered 
are fiction, they take no greater liberties with the text of the Passio than do many 
of those scholars whose interpretations we have reviewed in the earlier 
sections of this chapter. If Tracy is correct in his assertion that to determine 
criteria of adequacy we must pay attention to the authenticity of a writer's 
subjectivity, 228 then we should accept Miller, di Brunassi, Adams, and de 
Maricourt as authentic. They are telling the truth about Perpetua as they see it, 

226 Ibid., 326. 

227 Ibid., 346. 

228 Tracy, 69 

85 



no less than did Augustine or do contemporary scholars. Miller's novel and the 
other three fictional accounts we have considered, like the text which Perpetua 
left behind, contain enough factual material to make the story appear historically 
founded, yet leave enough unsaid so that our imaginations are stimulated. Just 
as Emily does in Miller's book, the reader is encouraged to ask about the 
unstated and unrecorded elements of all women's lives, their motives and 
conflicts, their passions and sacrifices. 

Popular 
In tracing the trajectory of possible interpretations of Perpetua and her 

dreams, we have followed a chronology that has taken us from Greco-Roman 

times to the present. Another parallel path that might be explored is a trajectory 

that moves from elite analyses (e.g., Augustine, Freud, modern religious 

scholars) to popular appropriations of the story. Ricoeur has proposed that the 

meaning of a text is dynamic and fluid and that readers always self-project 

themselves into a text as they read it. In this manner they appropriate from a 

text what they want and need; they make their own what once was alien. 229 A 

review of both textual and pictorial material available on the internet illustrates 

how different groups have appropriated Perpetua and have seen in her life and 

story a validation of their own lives and stories. 

The Office of Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington, in a web 

page celebrating Black Catholic History Month, submits that "Black Catholics 

trace their faith history back to Christian antiquity long before other nations 

heard the 'Good News'." 230 Among the saints portrayed as black and claimed 

229 See Ricoeur, 43 and 94. 

230 Michael Scott, "Black History Month," Office of Black Catholics , 
<http://www.adw.org/culture/officeblack_month.html>, (21 January 2001). 

86 



as faith ancestors of modern African-American Catholics are Perpetua and 
Felicity. Another web page, the Catholic Community Forum, offers a summary 
of Perpetua's life and martyrdom, including the notation that she is the patron 
saint of cattle (presumably because she was meant to fight a wild cow in the 
amphitheater). A portrait of her on this page shows her embracing Felicity; both 
are depicted as black. 231 It is interesting to note that a prayer card available at 
religious book shops shows Perpetua as white and Felicity as black, perhaps 
assuming that because the latter was the former's slave the American 
white/black master/slave paradigm should prevail. The Passio itself makes no 
reference to the skin color of either woman, allowing room for speculation on 
the part of those who wish to see a Perpetua in their own image. 

A web page sponsored by IntegrityA/irginia, which describes itself as 
"worshiping in witness to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the gay and 
lesbian community," includes Perpetua and Felicity in a list of gay and lesbian 
saints. 232 The Passio is silent on the subject of Perpetua's sexual orientation 
and IntegrityA/irginia notes only that she and Felicity died together as friends 
and kissed as they were martyred. Whether this was the kiss of peace or 
something more is left to the reader to decide. The Christian History Institute 
provides a page titled "Christianity Elevates Women" which contains a graphic 
showing a fully-clothed Perpetua and Felicity kneeling together as two men 
dressed as Roman soldiers stand above them, with short swords drawn, ready 
for the kill. 233 The accompanying text calls both women heroines of the faith and 



231 Catholic Community Forum , <http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintp14.htm>, (21 
January 2001). 

232 IntegrityA/irginia , <http://integrityva.org/gay_saints.htm>, ( 21 January 2001). 

233 "Glimpses From Across Church History," Christian History Institute , 
<http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/WOMENSF/womn03.shtml>, (21 January 2001). 

87 



describes Felicity as being like a sister to Perpetua. Integrity/Virginia and the 
Christian History Institute each see the Passio as describing Perpetua in a 
relationship with Felicity which is in harmony with its own views on sexuality. 

Although one can argue that the Passio indicates that Perpetua 
voluntarily gave up her child, there is a popular view of her as a guardian of 
mothers who are separated from their children, particularly of those mothers 
who are in prison. A prayer on one web site calls upon the saint to "watch over 
all mothers and children who are separated from each other because of war or 
persecution. Show a special care to mothers who are imprisoned and guide 
them to follow your example of faith and courage." 234 These web pages confirm 
the public character of the Perpetua story and its ongoing ability to stimulate 
what Tracy calls the "'disclosure' possibilities of new meaning and truth for the 
situation to which the interpretation is applied. 



"235 



The "Real" Perpetua in Her Historical Setting 
It is instructive to recognize that Perpetua herself, as Nolan observantly 
points out, "provides no interpretation of her revelations, but seems rather 
moved to tell us about them merely because they occurred." 236 Perhaps that is 
because in antiquity dreams may have been so much a part of life, so integrated 
with and equal to waking reality, that there was no need to struggle with 
interpretive theory. Dreams were as expected and as inexplicable as the rising 
of the sun or the blowing of the wind. "By way of contrast," Robeck notes, "the 



234 Terry Matz, Catholic Online Saints , <http://saints.catholic.org/saints/perpetua.html>, (4 
February 2001). 

235 Tracy, 68. 

236 Nolan, 35. 

88 



redactor saw much more in these accounts than their initial purposes." 237 And 
ever since that original editing, other interpreters have been adding to the 
corpus so that today it is difficult if not impossible to find the real Perpetua, 
whose dreams may not have been religious, classical, feminist or 
psychological, but "primarily personal in nature, providing her with strength and 
comfort in her last days." 238 

Then why do we continue to study Perpetua's dreams and why are we 
still riveted by the story of her life, whether told in scholarly articles or in works of 
fiction? Perhaps because regardless of the debates over authorship and 
interpretive posture, dream narratives of this sort have historic value since "they 
are evidence for what people 'believed' at the time the legends took shape." 239 
We can assume that since the Christians of third century North Africa preserved 
Perpetua's dream account and martyrdom story, indeed cherished it, it must 
have spoken to their concerns. They must have identified with her and shared 
at least some of her beliefs, for "the object of writing saints' lives was to edify 
and gratify the reader." 240 Since Perpetua was a catechumen, still under 
instruction, it is most likely that "the beliefs and aspirations reflected in [her] 
visions and behavior indicate current catechetical teaching, one of the more 
reliable indices of a group's basic tenets." 241 The North African audience would 
have been sympathetic to the "pervasive apocalyptic tenor and instances of 
belief and prophecy and direct divine inspiration" which confirmed their "strong 
pro-Montanist tendencies." 242 The dream records would have been useful, 

237 Robeck, 87. 

238 Ibid., 93 
239 Attwater, 13. 

240 Ibid., 12. 

241 Wilson-Kastner, 2. 

242 Ibid. 

89 



hortatory documents for the leaders of the community to employ in their mission. 

That the dreams remained important and succeeded in inspiring later 
generations of Christians is made clear by historians who have found that 
"Every year, on the anniversary of her martyrdom, Perpetua's words were read 
aloud to the assembled parishioners in the various churches in north Africa." 243 
The dreams resonated so well with the common people that "Augustine himself 
had to warn sternly that her words, her views, were not canonical scripture." 244 
If Perpetua's dreams tell us something about the early Christians, they are also 
informative about Roman authority at the time. We cannot know for certain, but 
the fact that the jailers, judges and general public seemed relatively unflustered 
by Perpetua's martyrdom and appeared accustomed to dealing with the 
situations which it presented, leads one to imagine that Perpetua was not the 
first or only woman prisoner the Romans had to deal with in greater Carthage. 
The Roman harshness in dealing with Perpetua also suggests that problems of 
conversion and rebelliousness were troubling to the local administration and, 
perhaps, not uncommon. 

Perpetua's dreams have been recorded, by her or by an editor or by an 
anonymous author, with great artistry. It is partially for this reason that they have 
continued to stimulate comment and excite critics for so long and why they have 
so appealed to writers of fiction. Many interpreters, however, may have ignored 
or distorted the real Perpetua in her historical setting in an attempt to further 
their own theoretical agendas. A more sound approach may be to 
acknowledge how her dreams reflect the situation of the early church in 
Carthage and Roman authority in North Africa. Dreams may or may not speak 

243 Shaw, 33. 

244 Ibid., 37. 

90 



to us about God and sex and political resistance; but they definitely speak to us 
about history. 

In this chapter we have seen that the number of differing and resourceful 
interpretations seem limited only by the curiosity of the interpreter and his or her 
own particular preunderstandings. And because of this variety, the text 
continues to live. We will see in Chapter Five that a similar observation can be 
made about institutions and their boards of trustees. An open and pluralistic 
board produces new ideas and enables an institution to remain vibrant and 
relevant. But before turning from Perpetua to questions of trusteeship, we will 
consider one further approach to Perpetua's dreams. 



91 



. 



CHAPTER FOUR 

AN ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: PERPETUA'S DREAMS AS AN 
EXAMPLE OF HOW WOMEN HAVE USED DREAMS TO PROMOTE THEIR 

RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION 

For those who may be unconvinced or uncomfortable with the 
approaches and interpretive theories of the writers discussed thus far, I have 
provided in this chapter my own alternative approach. It is that we may view 
Perpetua's dreams as an aid which she employed to help her accomplish her 
goals. The dreams thus become important not only for the images they contain 
but also for how they were used by the dreamer. We turn from dream theory to 
dream application, from the dream as an object to the dream as a weapon. We 
may see Perpetua's dreams as propelling her as a woman into a place of 
leadership--for however brief a time-in her community. We may consider her 
dreams as an instrument which she wielded to voice, promote and justify a 
women's right to religious expression. Perpetua was not unique in this regard. 
One can argue that women prophets and preachers across the centuries, in 
North Africa, Europe and America, have utilized their dreams as weapons of 
empowerment and as vehicles which helped them achieve the ends they 
sought. To illustrate this use of dreams and dream interpretation, this chapter 
will examine the dreams not only of Perpetua, but also of five other women: 
Hildegard of Bingen, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, Rebecca Jackson, and Elleanor 
Knight. We will ask of each the following questions: 



92 



1 . What were the circumstances surrounding the dreamer when she had 
the dream and how might those circumstances have affected the dream? 

2. What was the nature of the dream? 

3. Did the dream come "naturally" or was it incubated or induced? 

4. How was the dream reported and recorded? 

5. Did the dream help or hinder the dreamer's religious expression? 

I will argue that it was principally because of their dreams that these women 

were able to rise above their marginalized status in society and become forces 

in their communities and in the wider world. Because their dreams were 

accepted by men in power as coming from God, these women's ideas could be 

viewed by men not as the fancies of women, which might well be unacceptable 

in a patriarchal society, but as the ideas of God. The power structure from the 

second through the nineteenth centuries placed men above women, but it also 

placed God above men. If a woman could somehow demonstrate that what she 

wanted to achieve was God's will expressed through her in a dream or vision, 

she could defeat the system which subjugated her. Without the validation which 

dreams deemed to come from God provided, it is doubtful that the religious 

expression which these women realized would have been possible. Dreams 

were forces which neutralized gender and overturned the existing power 

structure. The dreamer spoke for God and the dream thus became a privileged 

form of communication which carried with it influence and a compelling 

magnetism. A man could deny a woman the opportunity to speak out, to 

organize, to lead and to govern; but no man could deny those opportunities to 

one who spoke for the deity. 

As we consider these six women dreamers and how their dreams 

93 



conferred unusual power and a special status upon them, we may see how 
Perpetua's dream experiences, far from being unique or bizarre, fall into a 
category of motivational dreaming which women have utilized throughout 
history. 

Perpetua 

As the Passio continually reminds us, Perpetua was female: a daughter, 
sister and mother. In the society of the Roman Empire of her day, even a 
literate, upper-class young woman like Perpetua would have been subordinate 
to both her father and her husband and bound to do their bidding. She also 
would have been expected to defer to men on issues of family, politics and 
religion. Even in the emerging Christian community of Carthage, it is probable 
that a woman's role in the church was limited, with few opportunities to lead and 
minister. One can argue that it was Perpetua's dreams which enabled her to 
ignore these expectations and to assume a posture of defiance toward the men 
in her family, and take on a position of leadership in her small Christian 
community. 

Perpetua's first dream, we may remember, was triggered by her brother 

who reminded her that she was greatly privileged as a confessor and could ask 

for a vision to discover whether she was to be condemned or freed. She replied 

that she would, because she knew that she could speak with the Lord. There is 

a certain intentionality in this statement, a certain dogged confidence. 

Perpetua's dreams did not come to her by chance; she actively sought them as 

a means of problem solving, as a guide to the future, and as an aid to what she 

must have seen as her mission. Perpetua purposefully set out to have her 

94 



dreams. They were to be a device which would allow her to express herself in a 
forum which might otherwise have been closed to her. 

As we have seen, Perpetua's dreams themselves were filled with 
symbols which can be subject to various interpretations. Much scholarly effort 
has been expended over the analysis of these symbols and the relationship of 
them to other texts and practices. Is it not possible, however, that an exact 
reading of the dreams is less important than what Perpetua did with them? We 
must not forget to observe how Perpetua used her dreams and how they served 
her purposes in the brief time she had remaining to her. Because of her 
dreams, Perpetua was able to inspire, motivate and strengthen the resolve of 
her community at a time when at least some Christians were being persecuted. 
Her advice and counsel were accepted by men above her in status and rank. 
Men who had a longer association with the church and a higher position within 
it deferred to her. Perpetua, a woman meant to be an obedient follower, 
became a leader. Salisbury writes that Perpetua's "qualifications for leadership 
were clearly her dreams and visions which were believed to be prophetic. Just 
as Paul put prophets above priests and deacons, Perpetua... placed prophetic 
martyrs over more official figures." 245 Her dreams erased the hierarchical and 
patriarchal structure of both the church and the Roman/North African society of 
the early third century and enabled her, as a woman speaking for God, to 
solidify and preserve the nascent Christian community. Had she not dreamt, 
reported her dreams to her fellow Christians, and recorded the details in a diary, 
would she have been allowed to act as she did and command a position of 
deference? Probably not. Although women did have some authority in the 



245 Salisbury, 66. 

95 



early church, it was nevertheless circumscribed by the rules of the broader 
social milieu in which they lived. Perpetua may have been a Christian, from a 
good family, and literate in three languages, but she still was a woman whose 
place was subservient to the men in her household, church and city, and whose 
"life as a Roman woman was structured... to preserve the social order." 246 

Perpetua's dreams not only promoted her to a position of authority in the 
Christian community, they also enabled her to defy the wishes of her father 
whom she "vanquished along with his diabolical arguments." (Pass. 3. 3) It was 
highly unusual for a young woman to oppose the wishes of her father in the 
ancient world. As Daniel Hoffman writes, Perpetua managed to "transcend the 
expectations placed on the female sex by becoming a man (in one of her 
revelations) and by exhibiting extreme bravery in contests in the arena." 247 
Hoffman's implication is that without the impetus of her dreams and the sense of 
assuredness which they gave her, Perpetua would not have been as defiant of 
her father nor as brave in the arena as she was. Perpetua relied on her dreams 
and they justified her religious expression and her departure from the restrictive, 
sexist norms of her time. 

Hildegard of Bingen 
If Perpetua's life was tragically short and her dreams relatively focused, 
the biography and oneiric experiences of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1 179) 
were quite the opposite. Where Perpetua's dream symbols and images were 
relatively simple and concrete, Hildegard's were quite complex and abstract. 
Hildegard's lifespan exceeded eighty-one years, and her many talents brought 

246 Ibid., 12. 

247 Hoffman, 170. 

96 



her recognition from and contact with the major European figures of her time. 
Barbara Newman, observing Hildegard's varied abilities and successes, 
reminds us that she was an abbess, a spiritual counselor, a physician, a 
theologian, a writer, an artist, a musician, a reformer and a preacher. 248 Peter 
Dronke aptly calls her "an overpowering, electrifying presence--and in many 
ways an enigmatic one." 249 

Although Hildegard's visions began when she was but three years old, it 
was not until forty years later that she started to record them, as she explained, 
at God's direction. Hildegard's visions, like Perpetua's dreams, allowed her to 
rise above the limitations which men placed upon women in medieval Europe. 
Newman goes so far as to suppose that "Were it not for the visions, she would 
not have preached or written at all" and that "had she not claimed her gift as a 
mark of divine authority, no one would have listened to her." 250 One can only 
imagine the frustrations that a person with Hildegard's intelligence, capabilities 
and drive might have felt had she not been able-somehow--to exercise her 
considerable skills. She was circumspect, however, in the competences she 
chose to exhibit and the battles she chose to fight. Women in the medieval 
period were prohibited from preaching, and Hildegard did not actually oppose 
this stricture. While she has become an icon for many contemporary feminists, 
Hildegard herself "supported the exclusion of women from the clergy and other 
forms of female subordination." 251 Perhaps, like many single minded geniuses, 
Hildegard was less interested in the liberation of the many, in this case women, 



248 Barbara Newman, Sisters of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1987), xviii. 

249 Dronke, 144. 

250 Newman, 34. 

251 Ibid., 247. 

97 



than she was in finding an outlet for her own prodigious abilities. 

Newman writes that 

Never did she suggest that as a woman and a Christian, she had 
any "right" to teach or prophesy in the Church. Nor did she claim 
or demand equality with men. Rather, she insisted that God had 
chosen a poor, frail, untutored woman like herself to reveal his 
mysteries only because those to whom he had first entrusted 
them--the wise, learned, and masculine clergy-had failed to 
obey. : 



252 



What do we make of a confident, dominant, creative, successful person who, in 
a letter to Elizabeth of Schonau, insists that she is "a mere poor woman; a 
vessel of clay" whose abilities and writings came "not from me but from the clear 
light"? 253 Perhaps Hildegard protests too much. Perhaps what she really 
means is that the larger society around her would have indeed considered her 
a "poor woman"--without power, money, or formal education-had she not had 
her visionary experiences. That is, she would have been like most women in 
the middle ages. However, because of her visions she exercises the kind of 
authority usually reserved to men of rank. Her visions ensure that she will be 
taken seriously. They enabled her to participate creatively, politically, 
theologically and administratively in a society that otherwise would have been 
closed to her. 

Hildegard was not above using her visions to get her own way. Sabina 
Flanagan notes that "Hildegard's strategy was to attempt to convert others to her 
point of view by claiming knowledge of the divine will, as against their 
ignorance or possible malevolence." 254 In other words, Hildegard used her 

252 Ibid., 3. 

253 Hildegard of Bingen, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, ed. Fiona Bowie and Oliva Davies, 
trans. Robert Carver (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1999), 130. 

254 Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life (London: Routledge, 
1989), 182. 

98 



visions as a weapon of personal empowerment, much as others might have 

used wealth, family, position, beauty, oratory or intellectual brilliance to forward 

their own personal agendas. 

Does this imply that Hildegard's visions were not real, that she self- 

servingly composed them to help her win her battles? Does it imply that the 

visions were bogus, or at least exaggerated and modified in the translation from 

interior image to the exterior written word? Not necessarily. Flanagan finds that 

Ever since her experience of 1 141 , when she felt herself 
compelled by God to write down her visions, she believed her life 
was set in a prophetic mold. Accordingly, she saw herself as the 
mouthpiece of the Lord, merely conveying his messages to her 
hearers and readers. Moreover, a woman could be a prophet 
without upsetting the perceived natural order. 2 



255 



Hildegard felt her entire life to be inspired by God and so we must view her 
goals and actions as also being so inspired. When one is convinced that one is 
leading a life touched by God, the question of whether a particular vision does 
or does not come wholly "through the inspiration of divine mystery" becomes 
moot. 256 Because Hildegard's life was inspired, her messages were God's 
messages and God's messages were hers. 

However, it should be noted that Hildegard did write down her visions as 
a means of making them public, and this has led some scholars to conclude that 
her visionary mode was a mere literary device, akin to the techniques used, for 
example, in the Shepherd of Hermas to move a plot forward. Others have even 
attributed the "clear light" and "burning flame" of the visions to migraines to 
which Hildegard may have been prone. 257 These speculations cannot be 

256 Ibid., 13-14. 

266 Hildegard, 127. 

257 Flanagan, 191 and 199. 

99 



"258 



proved or disproved. What is certain is that Hildegard's visions did reflect the 
concerns she had at the time the vision occurred. There was a definite 
relationship between the challenges Hildegard faced in her "normal" or 
"waking" life and the visions which provided solutions to those challenges. 
Whatever their origin-God, literary technique, migraines-they helped her 
express herself in a world that did not welcome women's argumentation or 
preaching. They advanced her point of view. They justified the actions she 
wished to take and "provided psychological benefits for Hildegard, giving her 
the courage and authority to act in ways which would otherwise have been 
difficult, perhaps impossible, for persons of her status, education, and gender. 
Like Perpetua, Hildegard did not let her dreams lie fallow; she used them. 



J arena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, Rebecca Jackson and Elleanor Knight 
Over eight hundred years separate Perpetua from Hildegard and another 
seven hundred separate Hildegard from the four women preachers considered 
in the following paragraphs. Yet the issues remain the same. How do women 
who feel moved to preach, who have the abilities to lead and the intelligence to 
make meaningful contributions to religious discourse get a hearing in a male 
dominated world that limits their expression? The answer to this rhetorical 
question is through the use of their dreams and visions. I have grouped Lee, 
Elaw, Jackson and Knight together more because of their historical overlap than 
because of other similarities, although similarities do indeed exist. Lee was 
born in 1783, Elaw in 1790, Jackson in 1795 and Knight in 1799. Three were 
black, all became preachers, all were independent of mainline Protestant 
denominations and all had lively dream and visionary experiences. 

258 Ibid., 199. 

100 



Jarena Lee's (1783-1837) dreams and visions came at critical points in 
her extraordinary life, motivating her and advising her as to the correct path to 
take when difficult choices had to be made. Lee was born in New Jersey and 
moved to Philadelphia where she sought an opportunity to preach and lead 
prayer meetings. Her belief in God and her commitment to a religious life were 
a direct result of a vivid vision she had of Satan, "in the form of a monstrous dog, 
and in a rage, as if in pursuit, his tongue protruding from his mouth to a great 
length, and his eyes looked like two balls of fire." 259 Only God could save her 
from such a beast and so she dedicated herself to God's work. A few years 
later, her call to become a preacher came in the guise of "a voice" which told 
her "Preach the gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your 
enemies to become your friends." 260 As a black woman, with no formal 
education or theological training, Lee must have welcomed her "voice" as an 
indication that the learning she lacked was not necessary for her ministry. Like 
both Perpetua and Hildegard, Lee did not claim that she herself wanted to 
preach or that the words she spoke were of her own invention; the words came 
from God. Her visions gave her the confidence to face a society which was 
largely set against her mission and they provided a reason for it. It was God's 
will that she preach, not hers. Another crucial dream came when Lee was sick 
and despairing. In it, the sun was "obscured by a dense black cloud, which 
continued to hide its rays for about one-third part of the day, and then it burst 
forth again with renewed splendor." 261 This she interpreted as God's 
encouragement of her vocation and a justification of her request to the newly 



259 Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia: Printed and 
Published for the Author, 1849), 6. 

260 Ibid., 10. 

261 Ibid., 14. 

101 



organized African Methodist Episcopal Church that she be allowed to preach. 

Lee wrote her account of her dreams well after they occurred. Unlike 
Perpetua and Hildegard, she did not employ a dream text as a kind of 
propaganda weapon, nor did she incubate or induce her dreams as they did. 
The dreams came, it appears, unexpectedly and seemed to be boosters or aids 
to Lee herself rather than instructions which were meant to be conveyed to the 
general public by her. Lee had dreams which advised her on her marriage, 
visions of Christ which reinforced her belief, and supernatural sensations which 
bade her change her travel plans to avoid pending disasters. One might well 
argue that in the absence of role models, in the absence of the guidance of 
institutional hierarchies, teachers and counselors, Lee relied on her dreams for 
hope and direction, and as a means of building her confidence. 

Zilpha Elaw (1790-1846) also began her calling to ministry with a dream. 
Born outside of Philadelphia, Elaw was one of twenty-two children and was sent 
to live as a servant to a Quaker family when she was twelve. Her dreams began 
during this period of service. She writes in her autobiography that "It was a 
prevailing notion... that whatever a person dreamed between the times of twilight 
and sunrise, was prophetically ominous, and would shortly come to pass." 262 
Thus we see that the common wisdom in nineteenth century Pennsylvania was 
the same as it was in ancient Carthage and medieval Germany; dreams were 
predictive and carried both weight and authority. Elaw's first dream, like Lee's 
vision of Satan, was horrific in its images of "the awful terrors of the day of 
judgment." 263 It was followed by a vision of a "tall figure [with] long hair which 



262 Zilpha Elaw, "Memories of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labours of 
Mrs. Elaw" in Sisters of the Spirit, ed. and into. William L. Andrews (Bloomington: Indiana 
University Press, 1986), 55. 
283 Ibid. 

102 



parted in the front and came down on his shoulders... he stood with open arms 

and smiled upon me." 264 The combination of the imagery of the terrors of hell 

and the love of Christ remained in Elaw's mind for the rest of her life. 

Elaw herself did not have a great number of visions (although she did go 

into trances regularly at camp meetings) but a "swoon" or dream of her sister 

gave impetus to her preaching career. Elaw writes that her sister 

had seen Jesus, and had been in the society of angels; and that 
an angel came to her, and bade her tell Zilpha that she must 
preach the gospel; and also that I must go to a lady named Fisher, 
a Quakeress, and that she would tell me further what I should 
do... and my dear sister was pressingly urgent for me to begin and 
preach directly. 



265 



Here it is someone else's dream, Elaw's sister's, that initiates her life's work. 
Such was the belief in the accuracy and inerrancy of dreams that even the 
dream of another person was reason enough to justify a career decision. 
Would Elaw have become a preacher without the stimulus of her sister's 
dream? Of course we cannot know this for sure. But she hadn't sought to 
preach before the dream and she did afterward. At a minimum, the dream 
encouraged her to do what she was already thinking about doing; and possibly 
it did much more. By 1817, Elaw believed that the dreams and trances she was 
experiencing were indications of the sanctification of the soul by God and that 
she was therefore meant to preach and evangelize. Gayle T. Tate notes that 
"This sort of sanctification experience of being totally in harmony with the Divine 
Will enabled women to withstand societal criticism for their nontraditional 
ministerial roles." 266 



264 Ibid., 56. 

265 Ibid., 73. 



266 Gayle T. Tate, "Zilpha Elaw," in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1 , ed. 
Darlene Clark Hine (New York: Carlson Publishing Company, 1993), 388. 

103 



In her introduction to the writings of Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), 
Jean McMahon Humez acknowledges that Jackson's autobiography is 
"centrally concerned with how religious vision and ecstatic experience 
functioned for her and other women of her time as a source of personal power, 
enabling them to make radical change in the outward circumstances of their 
lives." 267 The argument which has been presented in this chapter could not be 
better summarized. Jackson's dreams and visions were more frequent and 
prolific than any of the other nineteenth century women under consideration. 
Jackson, who was born near Philadelphia and lived there and in New York, had 
her first dream experience in 1830. She brought on many of her dream 
experiences herself through incubatory techniques which "invited the 'gifts' or 
supernatural experiences of various kinds that gave her power over the 
destructive, menacing forces she confronted, both inside herself and in the 
outside world." 268 Jackson is a clear example of a woman who induced her own 
dreams, recorded them in detail, and shaped them to her own purpose. 
Dreams for Jackson were a means of instruction, an inner library, a mentor- 
substitute, or as Humez puts it, "a source of instruction that could be relied on 
absolutely." 269 For someone without easy access to the resources and tools 
available to educated, privileged, white males, dreams and visions were an 
effective substitute. 

Humez cautions her readers that the images, language, and plots of 
Jackson's dreams must be interpreted in the context of her time, status, race, 
and particular location. Through such a lens, they need not be mystical, 



267 Jean McMahon Humez, ed. and intro., Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black 
Visionary, Shaker Eldress (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 1. 

268 Ibid., 2. 

269 Ibid., 16. 

104 



esoteric or hermetic. Like Hildegard, Jackson's dream work followed certain 
religious-symbolic conventions. These conventions "would have been familiar 
[to] a woman growing up in a black Methodist churchgoing environment in the 
early nineteenth century," 270 but may be less accessible to those reading the text 
from a secular, twenty-first century standpoint. This is good general advice to 
anyone seeking to understand the writings of a past age, and especially 
appropriate when those writings concern dreams tied to a special place and 
time. Humez observes that Jackson's dreams "often incorporate the familiar 
female routine domestic labors-cooking, cleaning, sewing, caring for 
children," 271 even though those activities may be given specifically Christian or 
moral interpretations. The use of such "simple" symbols underlines Jackson's 
expressed position that one need not be a trained theologian or educated and 
ordained minister to preach God's word. 

Jackson's dreams also served to confirm her own decisions at turning 
points in her life. Dreams led her to an important compromise with the Shaker 
Eldress of a Watervliet, N.Y. religious community which she had joined. They 
also led her to change her residence and to begin a formal study of the Bible. 
Again, like Hildegard, she used her dreams as signposts; and those signposts 
more often than not indicated the path she herself had already set out to follow. 
Like Perpetua, she used her dreams to gain a hearing and to speak and act 
with an authority that otherwise would have been denied her. 

Elleanor Knight (1799-18??) was the wife of an abusive alcoholic in 
Cranston, Rhode Island, when she received a call to preach in 1829. It came in 
a dream which began with "a nightmarish image of her past life" and ended with 

270 Ibid., 47. 

271 Ibid., 49. 

105 






. 






. 









a guide telling her she must become a preacher. 272 Her husband, friends and 
local ministers all insisted that she was being deceived by her dreams, and they 
condemned her ambitions. She left Cranston and traveled throughout New 
England, holding prayer meetings where she could, most often among Freewill 
Baptist congregations. According to Catherine Brekus, Knight's dream 
experience was not uncommon and could be found in the stories of many 
women preachers who "had heard Christ's voice calling to them in dreams." 273 
While men were able to study for the ministry and rely on institutional support in 
their careers, women learned from and were buoyed by a personal encounter 
with God in their dreams. Brekus finds that "all female preachers, whether white 
or black, described their calls to preach as... beyond their control." 274 Since 
society did not permit women the individual right to choose preaching as a 
vocation, the choice had to come from outside themselves. And it did, from their 
dreams. 

In this rapid and selective examination of how dreams empowered 
women to exercise religious leadership, what tentative conclusions might we 
draw? First, dreams came most often to those women that sought them, 
whether knowingly, purposefully, unconsciously or through others. There may 
be, of course, untold numbers of women to whom dreams came unsought; but 
few of these women have left textual records of their dream experiences. The 
records we do have suggest that women who wanted dreams usually received 
them. Second, the reporting of a dream, the converting of the dream images 
into a text, enhances the dream's power and the authority of the dreamer. It 



272 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel 
Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 163. 

273 Ibid., 166. 

274 Ibid., 185. 

106 



also contributes to the longevity of the dream story and almost guarantees an 

ongoing procession of differing interpretations. This is so because, as Harold 

Evans and Lionel Trilling have noted, "an idea derived from reading is not a 

unitary, irrefragable thing but something modified in its transmission by the 

cultural community into which it falls, by the response to the language, by the 

power of understanding of those who receive it and by their purpose and 

intentions." 275 Third, in every case a reported dream helped advance the cause 

of the dreamer. As Elizabeth Petroff elegantly states it, 

Visions led women to the acquisition of power in the world while 
affirming their knowledge of themselves as women. Visions were 
a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from 
conventional female roles by identifying her as a genuine religious 
figure. They brought her to the attention of others, giving her a 
public language she could use to teach and learn. Her visions 
gave her the strength to grow internally and to change the world 



276 



Dreams gave voices to women who otherwise might have been silenced. 
Perpetua was but one of many women dreamers whose importance, strength, 
and power in the waking world depended on the impetus of their dreams and 
visions. We will see in the following chapter that the same may be said of those 
members of a board of trustees who are dreamers and visionaries, not in the 
oneiric understanding of the words, but in the sense that they look to the future 
and are willing to embrace change. 



275 Harold Evans, "White House Book Club," The New York Times Book Review, 15 January 2001 , 
p. 31. 

276 Petroff, 6. 

107 



CHAPTER FIVE 
LESSONS FOR MINISTRY 

This chapter will venture to show that one can draw an analogy between 
Perpetua and the interpreters of her dreams and the behavior of members of 
boards of trustees. We will consider how questions of power, pluralism, vision 
and criteria of appropriateness apply to each of these admittedly very different 
camps. 

Through an examination of the manifold interpretations of Perpetua's life 
and dreams, we have seen that each interpreter claims a certain authority to 
construe the text of the Passio. Whether it be a Doctor of the Church such as 
Augustine, a scholar on the order of Patricia Cox Miller or a poet like Sarah 
Flower Adams, the interpreter assumes the power to instruct the reader as to 
how the story should be read and what it really means. The reader may not 
agree completely, or at all, with what the interpreter says; but the interpreter, at 
least for a time, controls the argument, provides its boundaries and sets its tone. 
The interpreter is the text's mediator, transposing it from past to present, seeking 
in Tracy's words, "to retrieve its somewhat strange, somewhat familiar 
meanings." 277 A similar analysis can be applied to the role of a trustee. The 
issues of interpretation which Perpetua's story raises are also raised in the 
boardroom. There are, for example, questions of power, orthodoxy, control, 

277 Tracy, 99. 

108 



privilege, and context that are common to both. Trustees wrestle with issues of 
power and subjectivity much as Perpetua's interpreters wrestle with the Passio. 
We have seen that interpreters approach a text with their own presuppositions; 
so, too, do trustees approach their institutional responsibilities with their own set 
of prior understandings and biases based on parameters as varied as age, 
gender, race, class, education, employment, wealth and political affiliation. 
These internal imperatives, as Tracy would call them, are not necessarily 
liabilities if they contribute to the creation of a pluralism which benefits the 
institution which the trustees serve. 

My lay ministry consists of service as a trustee on the boards of seven 
not-for-profit institutions and as a paid advisor to the trustees of a $15 billion 
public employees' retirement system and a $20 billion investment pool 
administered by the State of Alaska for the benefit of the State's residents. My 
commitment to this ministry has its source in a conviction that trustees can be 
visionaries-agents for positive change both within their institutions and the 
community at large, while at the same time exercising responsible financial and 
organizational stewardship. 

Any observant trustee must acknowledge that his or her position in an 
institution involves power, control and authority. In most cases, the board is the 
ultimate authority on issues involving an institution's self-definition, goals and 
objectives, future planning, finances, personnel policies and posture toward the 
community. A board member holds specifically defined powers which confer 
authority by virtue of an organization's by-laws, state and federal statutes and 
common law. Other powers may accrue because of tradition, community 

influence, financial power or social deference. These powers come with a 

109 



board seat; authority and privilege adhere to the position. They are part of its 
context. Just as one expects a scholar to be comfortable with the authority he or 
she wields over a text being explicated, a board member must be equally 
comfortable with the power the position entails. Not every board member may 
understand or be comfortable with this sort of power and authority. Some may 
be reluctant to exercise the power the position commands because of personal 
timidity, a desire to enjoy the prestige but not the responsibility of board 
membership, or over-reliance on long-standing board members or senior staff. 
Still others may reach for more power than they are legitimately entitled to hold. 
They might covet the day-to-day operational powers that should be reserved, for 
example, to a school's dean, a museum's curator, or a library's unionized 
director. It is important for a trustee to exercise the authority which the position 
confers while respecting authority which is domiciled elsewhere, just as it is 
important for the interpreter of a text to justify his or her conclusions and meet 
the relevant criteria of adequacy. 

Similar challenges face the interpreters of Perpetua's dreams and the 
responsible trustee. In the preceding four chapters we have asked, implicitly 
and explicitly, a number of questions: How far afield should an interpreter 
wander from his or her specialty? How much should an interpreter rely on 
those who have gone before and how much deference should be shown to 
them? How insistent on the veracity or necessity of a single interpretation alone 
should a commentator on Perpetua be? Is the interpretation of an ancient text 
such as the Passio to be reserved only to those who have mastered the 
necessary languages and the historical context? Should those trained in other 
specialities (e.g., psychology, political economy, fiction) be given equal access 

110 



and an equal hearing? We have answered these questions by following David 
Tracy's argument that all interpreters of a classic text come to it with 
preunderstandings, but that those very preunderstandings lead to 
interpretations which provoke us and widen our horizons. All interpretations 
should, however, be subject to some sort of a test. Tracy proposes the idea of 
"criteria of appropriateness" or "criteria of adequacy" beyond which, one 
presumes, an interpretation would be unacceptable. But within the bounds of 
the criteria, pluralism of interpretation is not only encouraged, it is demanded. 

Analogous questions may be posed to the trustee: Should a new 
trustee's opinion be as heavily weighted as that of an experienced senior 
trustee? How should a trustee exercise his or her power on a board? Should 
only those trustees expert in finance sit on the budget or investment committees, 
or should those from other fields (e.g., social service, academics, priesthood) 
participate as well? How much familiarity should a trustee have with disciplines 
distant from his or her own? Tracy's strategy can be successfully applied here 
as well. 

Just as Perpetua's interpreters must respect criteria of appropriateness 
and must not abuse the power attached to their control of the text, so too must a 
trustee be wary of the misuse of power in relationships with other board 
members, staff and the public. There are cliques on boards which undermine 
fair and open discussion and consensus building by voting en bloc to advance 
their own agendas and stymie the ideas of others. The formation of such 
pressure groups is a misuse of power on the board level and is just as unfair as 
it would be for an interpreter of a text to prevent other views from being heard. 
Board members who occupy particularly powerful positions outside an 

111 



- 















institution (for example, a high political office holder, a bank president, the scion 
of an old family, the head of a large local employer) may use their "outside" 
power, intentionally or perhaps unconsciously, to coerce other members to vote 
their way. While it is naive to think that an individual trustee should or could 
completely disregard his or her outside life when attending a meeting, a 
distinction must be made between power relationships inside and outside the 
boardroom. A trustee must not carry the "outside" authority he or she holds over 
another trustee into an "inside" board meeting to stymie different ideas. 

Because of the inherent disequilibrium of power between trustee and 
staff, a trustee must not look to staff for close friendships or to have his or her 
emotional needs met. Showing an honest interest in a staff person's work, 
ambitions and problems may be part of a board member's responsibility and 
may make a positive contribution to the health of the organization, but the 
difference in power between the two parties must be recognized and improper 
closeness must be discouraged. Similarly, a trustee must never take advantage 
of the power disparity to favor one staff member over another (or try to influence 
an executive director to do so) for personal or political reasons. A trustee 
should not use a board position to gain special privileges which the public 
might not enjoy. For example, a trustee's right to use an institution's facilities or 
collections or staff time should rank equally with that of the general membership 
or public; a trustee should follow the same procedures as the public in applying 
for such use. 

Appropriateness 
In Chapter One we considered the textual problems of Perpetua's dream 

112 



record and concluded that an interpreter must be aware of issues such as 

authorship and translation and treat them in good faith. In Chapter Three we 

addressed the application of Tracy's criteria of appropriateness to the work of 

Perpetua's interpreters. We questioned whether an interpreter was bound to 

disclose to the reader issues of what the legal world might call conflicts of 

interest, whether the scholar was writing as a Jungian analyst, say, or a Roman 

Catholic priest, or a committed feminist. We also raised the question of exactly 

what constitutes fiduciary responsibility for a scholar. In dealing with the 

implications of Tracy's theories of pluralism, subjectivity, preunderstanding and 

appropriateness, we draw near to the legal concept of fiduciary responsibility. 

The concept of fiduciary responsibility for a scholar is theoretical, as Tracy's 

work show us. Matters are clearer for the trustee since the Commonwealth of 

Massachusetts has spelled out the legal responsibilities of charitable board 

members, what Tracy would call their criteria of appropriateness. A former 

Attorney General writes that 

If you are a member of the board of a charitable organization, you 
and your fellow board members are responsible for governing the 
charity as it carries out its charitable mission. The law imposes on 
you two primary duties. The duty of care means that you must act 
with such care as an ordinarily prudent person would employ in 
your position. The duty of loyalty means that you must act in good 
faith and in a manner that you reasonably believe is in the best 
interest of your charitable organization. 



278 



How does a trustee ensure that he or she is exercising the proper care and 
loyalty to which the Attorney General refers? A trusteeship is not a reward 
simply to be enjoyed, nor is it a sinecure, nor is it a position to which one gives 

only spare time. Proper ca re begins with taking the job seriously. This means 

278 Scott Harshbarger, The Attorney General's Guide for Board Members of Charitable 
Organizations (Boston: n.d.),1 . 

113 



being there. A trustee should attend as many board and committee meetings as 

possible; if one cannot regularly attend meetings one should resign. A trustee 

should frequently visit the institution, not to perform a surprise inspection but to 

see the organization in a working mode and to better understand its day-to-day 

operations. A trustee should not be expected to know every aspect of an 

institution in detail, but general operational familiarity is essential. Recurring 

visits will show both executive director and staff that a trustee is not just a 

figurehead but is actively concerned about the people, physical plant and 

programs of the institution. Of course, the diligent trustee, like the diligent 

dream interpreter, must guard against too much personal involvement; being 

interested does not mean being overly intrusive and attempting to do someone 

else's job. Visits should not be used as opportunities for ad hoc criticism or 

complaining. Problems that one notices on visits should be discussed in 

confidence at the proper time during board meetings. Trustee recognition of a 

smooth-running organization and praise of those responsible for it, however, 

should always be welcome. 

Care also requires that a trustee have access to the data and written 

materials needed to make informed decisions just as a scholar seeking to 

explain the Perpetua text must have access to the studies of others. Asking staff 

to provide this information either before meetings (if the issues are complex) or 

at meetings but before a vote (if the issues are relatively simple) is a reasonable 

request. The dissemination of information should be inclusive and uniform. All 

board members should receive the same information at the same time. No 

individual member should be privileged over another. 

An educated board is a productive board and the Attorney General 

114 



advises that trustees "must take the initiative to "make sure that board education 
programs are offered regularly." 279 Programs might be scheduled as retreats 
with either a staff specialist or an outside consultant exploring an upcoming 
issue or a new area of focus. Or a part of every second or third board meeting 
(assuming monthly meetings) might be devoted to an educational presentation. 
The institution's attorneys, accountants and other professionals should be 
invited to speak to the board on a regular basis, not just when there is a 
problem or emergency. The preparation of a board manual should also come 
under the rubric of education. A manual will help obviate the "I didn't know" 
excuse that may be used by old and new trustees alike. 

In addition to care, fiduciary responsibility entails loyalty to the institution 
the trustee serves. This means always putting the needs of the institution first. 
One's personal agenda must be subordinated to the best interests of the 
organization. Again the Attorney General provides useful guidelines which 
include: 

1 . Establishment of a policy for dealing with conflicts of interest. 

2. Disclosure by all board members of any business involvement, direct 
or indirect, with the institution. 

3. Withdrawal from discussion and voting by any board member involved 
in a business transaction with the institution. 

4. Outside evaluation of any major business transaction being proposed 
between the institution and an entity in which a board member has a significant 
interest. 280 

The appearance of a conflict of interest may be almost as critical as an actual 

279 Ibid., 9. 

280 Ibid., 6-7. 

115 



conflict. This is as true in a board environment as it is in a scholarly setting. In 

order to maintain the respect and confidence of the public and other trustees, a 

trustee must not even see/7? to have a conflict. If a trustee is thought to be 

benefiting personally from a board position, the integrity of the entire institution 

may be called into question. In short, 

Any conflict transaction should be scrutinized very closely by the 
board, both because of the dynamic it creates within the board and 
because of the predictable skepticism with which the public will 
view the transaction, no matter how scrupulously a careful policy is 
followed. 281 

Such issues may arise not only in the fiduciary sense of conflicts, but also in the 
sense of a trustee's unwillingness to acknowledge his or her 
preunderstandings. When reading an interpretation of Perpetua's dreams one 
sees the same conflict of interest issues in play. This is not to say that a 
Freudian therapist should not explain Perpetua's life by psychoanalyzing the 
text or that a scholar or novelist with Arab nationalist sympathies should not find 
Perpetua to be party to a Berber resistance movement. The encounter between 
interpreter and text is not a conflict as long as the writer's vision is authentic, the 
preunderstanding admitted, and other interpreters permitted their own voices. 

Leadership, Conviction and Anxiety 
The issue of leadership comes in a variety of forms and also straddles 
both textual interpretation and trustee behavior. Trustees may be charismatic 
and inspirational and driven to imprint their own vision upon an organization. 
They can also be quiet consensus builders, working carefully and deliberately 
toward their goals. In practice, most trustees occupy one of the many 

281 Ibid., 7. 

116 



gradations in between these oversimplified extremes. We have observed that 
Perpetua's interpreters also fall on such a continuum. Some argue for their 
vision of the martyr with fervor and absolute conviction; others are more 
balanced and hesitant, ready to concede that other views may coexist with their 
own. 

Perpetua's dream account illustrates how she became a leader by 
affirming her own convictions rather than adhering to the established norms of 
her society. The subtext is that one becomes a leader, a visionary, by becoming 
more fully oneself. In a discussion of leadership in the contemporary church, 
Ronald W. Richardson uses 1 Corinthians 12:4-31 as a touchstone to his 
observation that "leadership is a part of the community" and that "each member 
of the body becomes a leader by becoming more fully itself, differentiating into 
what it was created to be." 282 That is, leaders see the group they are leading as 
a system and see themselves as both a part of that system and yet unique 
within it. Richardson rephrases his observation to assert that "The message... is 
that you become a leader by becoming more fully yourself." 283 Although his 
remarks are aimed at priests and congregations, they apply equally well to 
trustees and boards (and to interpreters of Perpetua's dreams). A trustee in a 
leadership position must above all know and value himself or herself. This 
requires, as Richardson notes, "having a 'self focus rather than an 'other' focus" 
and "clarifying the beliefs, values, commitments, and life principles that make 
sense to us." 284 Once a leader has this self focus, it is important that it be 
communicated. Caroline Westerhoff writes that "If we do not or cannot assert 



282 Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 172. 

283 Ibid. 

284 Ibid., 177. 

117 



who we are and what we are about--or are not heard when we try-finally we 
will have nothing to offer any relationship." 285 

A good trustee will have or cultivate a non-anxious presence. 
Richardson observes that if an organization's leader is himself or herself not 
anxious, the odds are that the atmosphere in the organization will be calmer 
and more conducive to rational and thoughtful decision making. 286 On the 
contrary, "When a leader cannot contribute to this kind of atmosphere, the 
thinking processes in the group are short-circuited, and people become more 
anxious and more emotionally reactive and make poorer decisions." 287 How 
does a leader develop and maintain a non-anxious presence? One answer to 
this question takes us back to the concept of self-differentiation. If one is 
comfortable with one's place in the greater scheme of things, as Perpetua was, 
assuredly one will be less anxious about the ups and downs of life. This does 
not mean that one should be self-centered and oblivious to the tensions which 
come with board responsibility, but that one should be able to handle those 
tensions without increasing the level of anxiety of the group. 

A second response to the question is that lower anxiety may come from 
greater self care. A trustee must be concerned with his or her own well-being. 
One has all too often heard comments about trustees to the effect that "the 
Museum is her whole life" or "he works harder on the Library's finances than he 
does on his own." These remarks were probably meant as compliments, but 
are they? A trustee who neglects his or her private life and the needs of his or 
her family or business may be headed toward a greater rather than a lesser 



286 Caroline Westerhoff, Good Fences (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 62. 

286 Richardson, 173. 

287 Ibid. 

118 



level of anxiety and may eventually damage the institution which commands 
such devotion. Perspective is require to place the institution's demands in the 
proper place alongside of one's own personal needs. One board leader can 
benefit by sharing problems with the leader of another board just as one scholar 
might share a difficult point of interpretation with another. Honesty in the 
admission of a troubling situation can be the first step towards its resolution. 
Five years ago, the Boston Athenaeum instituted an annual reception for chief 
executives and board chairs of local cultural institutions in the hope that it might 
eventually lead to a freer exchange of ideas and between them. This has 
indeed occurred. Similar events might be planned around common problems 
of trustees. 

Pluralism and Leadership 
Boards of Trustees today look quite different from boards of the 1950's. 
This is true because boards, out of self-interest, have seen the benefits of 
diversity among their members and have invited minorities to join them. It is 
also true because visionary minorities themselves have claimed authority in the 
institutions with which they are involved, much as the women visionaries 
discussed in Chapter Four claimed authority through the medium of their 
dreams. Membership on the board of a major charitable or cultural institution is 
no longer viewed as an elitist prerogative. Nor is it limited to straight, white, 
Protestant, upper-class males. True, there are institutions which do expect 
trustees to make significant financial contributions to endowment and capital 
fund drives, and one can still buy a seat on certain boards with a major gift. But 

for the most part, today's boards are striving to be more representative of the 

119 



society around them and the communities they serve. To meet the challenges 
of a complex and rapidly changing world, boards must look for competency and 
not pedigree, for those who enjoy change rather than for those who 
automatically favor the status quo. The Attorney General has counseled 
Massachusetts organizations to "make sure that [a] board's process of selecting 
new members assures diversity of viewpoints and rotation of board members 
and officers." 288 Gilbert Rendle, quoting Ronald Heifetz and Daniel Laurie, 
explains that "Different people within the same organization bring different 
experiences, assumptions, values, beliefs and habits to their work. This 
diversity is valuable because innovation and learning are the products of 
differences." 289 

Without diversity an institution will find it difficult to reach and to serve a 
wide constituency in all its fullness; without diversity there is little chance for 
new vision and the threat of stagnation increases. There is a case to be made 
for the equivalent of an affirmative action program for trustee selection in order 
to ensure that diversity is achieved. Similarly, we have seen that pluralism in 
textual interpretation is important. The many voices we have heard explaining 
the meaning of Perpetua's dreams enhance our appreciation of them, stimulate 
our desire to learn more about them and inspire us to apply the lessons we 
learn from the text to contemporary situations. 

Charitable boards tend to be comprised of relatively independent people, 
just as those who have addressed themselves to Perpetua's dreams are 
independent in thought. Trustees don't have to do what they are doing, they are 
not usually paid, they cannot be compelled to stay if they want to leave, nor can 



288 Harshbarger, 3. 

289 Gilbert R. Rendle, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations (n.p.: Alban Institute, 1999), xi. 

120 



they be forced out save for major transgressions or the natural end of a term. 
Most trustees consider their board memberships as a form of community 
service; they answer to no higher authority within their institution. Managing 
trustees, it has been said, is like herding cats. They are going to follow their 
own instincts. This is also true, at least in part, of those interpreters who have 
wrestled with Perpetua and her dreams. Perhaps the best way to reach a board 
is to show that what one is proposing is congruent with their better instincts. 
New ideas should be presented as common sense proposals rather than 
dictates. Most of the board members I know enjoy owning a proposal rather 
than acquiescing to a fully designed blueprint set before them. Nurturing will 
have a better effect than force feeding. One should also remember that most 
trustees are successful people with a desire for further successes. If they see a 
new idea as promoting success, they are likely to favor it. Topics such as 
diversity and fiduciary relationships should be presented as aids to success 
rather than as protections against failure or adverse legal action. 

Conclusion 
The first four chapters of this thesis have focused on Perpetua and her 
dreams. This final chapter has sought to draw analogies between issues faced 
by interpreters of texts such as the Passio and those faced by trustees. We 
have seen that in both cases, individual biases and preunderstandings exist; 
perhaps no interpretation and no trustee voice can (or should) be free of such 
preunderstandings; and one may find in them strengths rather than liabilities, as 
long as certain reasonable standards of appropriateness are met. A plurality of 
opinion is of benefit to both a scholarly community and an institutional board. 

121 



We have also noted the importance of vision in its many forms. We have seen 
how Perpetua and other women used their oneiric visions for empowerment 
and to advance the very real visions they had for their work in the waking world. 
Similarly we have observed the several ways trustees might successfully 
promote the visions they have for their institutions. 

For a final observation on the interpreters of the Passio as well as on 
trustee behavior, we may do well to turn to Isaiah Berlin, who proposed that 
thinkers be categorized as either hedgehogs or foxes. 290 The foxes "pursue 
many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in 
some de facto way" while the hedgehogs "relate everything to a single central 
vision." 291 In interpretation and in the boardroom, there is a place for both. 



290 Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox : An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (London: 
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953). 

291 Ibid., 1. 

122 



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